Court fines and fees unfairly perpetuate cycles of poverty for disadvantaged Americans, but that has not stopped many hundreds of towns from deriving at least 10 percent of their budgets this way. The problem is particularly entrenched in the Deep South. Most of the municipalities getting over half their budgets this way are located in only four states: Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
When towns are funded this way, they often become speed traps, with local police stopping people for going 5 or 10 miles over the limit, sometimes having placed barely visible signs reducing speed limits on rarely used roads.
And when prosecutors are directly funded this way, it’s not surprising to see a huge influx in charged cases and incarceration. Alabama is among the states with the most corrupt funding mechanisms, where prosecutor’s offices keep the money that they themselves raise through civil forfeitures, diversion programs, fines and court fees. It’s about the most glaring conflict of interests imaginable.
In Alabama, where court fees and fines constitute an unconscionable 70 percent of state prosecutors’ budgets, COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the real cost of staying afloat on the backs of the criminalized poor. Normal hearings have been suspended by the Alabama Supreme Court for public health and safety reasons during the pandemic. As a result, much of the money that usually would be flowing to prosecutors has been cut off.
The state’s elected district attorneys have begun to panic. When the county clerk sent Limestone County District Attorney Brian C.T. Jones the numbers, Jones told a local news station that he replied, “I understand we cannot operate like this.” DA Jones also noted that he saw the budget effects in Mobile County, saying that “it’s just devastating.”
Now, the Alabama District Attorneys Association is asking the legislature to green-light a bailout to the tune of $8 million. This comes as the number of unemployment claims from Alabama residents is skyrocketing.
“If that measure doesn’t pass, then every single office will close,” claimed DA Jones.
But is that really true? A middle-ground between continuing on full budget and closing altogether would be laying off or furloughing a number of assistant prosecutors. That would be an appropriate way to adjust to a crisis situation, and one mirroring the hardships being endured by Alabamians in regular jobs. Prosecutors won’t like it, but citizens may be less concerned when both violent and property crime in Alabama seem to be decreasing, overall.
Several Alabama DAs have already been flushing working-class people’s tax dollars away for years.
Many assistant prosecutors, especially in more populous jurisdictions, do not prosecute the most serious violent crimes like rapes or murders. Such cases are left to the veterans. Forking out $8 million in public money to keep excess prosecutors around, just to make sure that every low-level drug charge or petty theft is zealously pursued, sounds like an excellent way to further damage public relations with law enforcement at a time of heightened stress.
Most legislatures have a hard time saying no to the district attorney lobby, and Alabama is a particularly carceral state. But COVID-19 could be an opportunity for lawmakers to change direction.
They could either grant much less than $8 million to the DAs, or no extra money at all. That money could be better spent, for example, on helping Black Alabamians get through the current health crisis, since Black people in America are dying at higher rates. Fiscal conservatives in the legislature could also argue to keep the money but lower taxes next year, which in their opinion would help stimulate the hard-hit economy.
In many ways, several Alabama DAs have already been flushing working-class people’s tax dollars away for years.
Limestone County DA Jones recalled that Mobile was hard-hit, but that’s also where DA Ashley Rich seeks and obtains the death penalty more than virtually any other local prosecutor in the nation. The death penalty is extremely expensive, with some trials costing over $1 million each. Not only that, but Rich also has a penchant for prosecutorial misconduct; in 2014, the conservative Alabama Court of Appeals reversed a death sentence she obtained because she could not stop referring to improperly introduced and inflammatory evidence at trial. Such self-inflicted procedures are hardly a profitable use of public funds.
The pandemic could provide political cover to do something about this. Or will Alabama lawmakers suddenly forget their fiscal conservatism in bailing out the people who deserve it least?