October 10, 2018
Each year, Alabama's municipal, district, and circuit courts assess millions of dollars in court costs, fines, fees, and restitution. Most of this money is sent to the state General Fund, government agencies, county and municipal funds, and used to finance pet projects.This hidden tax is disproportionately borne by poor people – particularly by poor people of color. In Alabama, African Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at higher rates than white people. For example, while African Americans and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, African Americans are over four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama. This report is an eort to examine, in detail, the collateral consequences of Alabama's court debt system and explore the ways in which it undermines public safety and drives the state's racial wealth divide. It is a product of our work with the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt, which is developing strategies to lessen the impact of criminal and civil judicial fines and fees, as well as medical fees and high-cost consumer products, on communities of color.We surveyed 980 Alabamians about their experience with court debt, asking how court costs, fines, and fees had affected their daily lives. Study participants included 879 "justice-involved" individuals who were paying their own court debt for offenses ranging from traffic violations to felonies, and 101 people who did not themselves owe court debt but were paying debt for other people. We analyzed results for the two groups separately and conducted a further analysis of the 810 justice-involved individuals who had also helped others pay off their debt.