In Alabama, Poverty could Become an Indefinite Jail Sentence

Woman spends 7 weeks in jail and is charged thousands of dollars in fines and upkeep all because she was too poor on her fixed income to pay 2 parking tickets.


This map shows the incorporated and unincorporated areas in Shelby County, Alabama, highlighting Harpersville in red. It was created with a custom script with US Census Bureau data and modified with Inkscape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over 100 years ago, most states shut down debtors prisons as unconstitutional. 10 years ago in Harpersville Alabama though, they opened one up.

Debra Ford was living on less than 700 bucks a month after a car wreck in ’97 caused her to become permanently disabled. She had no insurance or drivers license, and knew she shouldn’t drive, but living in rural Alabama makes driving sort of mandatory. She got pulled over for a taillight being out and was ticketed for lack of insurance and license, which come with hefty fees of $745.00

Harpersville has a contract with a private company called Judicial Correction Services. What they do is track down people who fail to pay fines and court costs and charges them a monthly fee (some of which they keep for their efforts). Typically these payments come in at alittle under 50 bucks a month, but to a woman on a fixed income of $640.00 a month that’s a fortune and means literally choosing between food and rent.

Her fees kept adding up and she fell behind. The company sent her a letter to pay immediately or go to jail but the letter was returned unopened and undeliverable. The judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest.

It was 2 years before she would know about the warrant as she was arrested and booked into county jail. Harpersville county jail charges inmates $31 per day to stay there, on top of the fees and fines she already owed. SEVEN weeks they kept this woman in jail, never seeing the inside of a courtroom, until her debt reached into the thousands.

Her family was finally able to find a lawyer that got her transferred to a work release program so the fees would stop adding up. Once there, she was required to pay them 40% of her gross earnings plus still being required to pay off her thousands of dollars in fines before she’d be allowed to leave the work-release. Since there was no official end to her sentence, she was stuck there paying out the bulk of her income to fees and fines just to stay out of jail.

What began as a broken taillight turned into a nightmare of jail and thousands in fees in a way that is completely unconstitutional in my opinion.

It turns out that her story isn’t unique though. With so many states in deficit, more and more are trying every way they can to take money from its citizens to pay its debts. People have spent months in jail after being unable to pay, being charged daily for the privilege of being incarcerated. Two people jailed in Harpersville died before ever getting to see a judge.

Traffic stop fees being it’s second largest income, citizens of Harpersville that couldn’t pay a fine in full on the day of his/her court appearance are put on probation. That means they get sent to a probation officer where out of each $100.00 payment, $55 will go towards the fine and $45 goes to JCS for their role in collecting the debts.

It took hundreds of people incarcerated indefinitely for speeding tickets and expired tag fines, and 2 deaths before someone finally began looking into it. Years later, following legal class action style suits being brought against them, Judge Harrignton of Harpersville ordered that the 930 people still paying off debts years later could consider their violations paid in full and Harpersville canceled it’s contract with JCS.

It isn’t over though folks. JCS has been bought by a prison healthcare corporation called Correctional Healthcare Companies which allows CHC to move into the enforcement industry. Apparently big business continues to feel that making the poor pay for being poorer is a sound financial investment.

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  1. Tony H Leather

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