Alabama city takes steps to end debtors’ prison after SPLC lawsuit

The SPLC lawsuit will continue to seek damages on behalf of plaintiffs.

A federal lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center has resulted in Alexander City, Alabama, passing an ordinance to ensure that no one is arrested or jailed because they cannot pay fines and court costs for traffic tickets and misdemeanors.

The ordinance, passed by the city last month, allows the municipal court to create alternatives, such as community service, for indigent defendants to pay their debt. The municipal court has also adopted new policies to ensure indigent defendants are treated fairly, and to prevent defendants from being charged an additional fee if they are placed on a payment plan.

“This is a great victory for the residents of Alexander City,” said Sara Zampierin, SPLC senior staff attorney. “The city should be commended for taking these important steps to ensure no one is locked up simply because they are poor. We hope other towns examine their own practices and ensure that they are not jailing the poor illegally.”

The SPLC’s federal lawsuit will continue to seek damages for people who were jailed over the past two years in Alexander City for their inability to pay. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama in September, names Alexander City and its police chief, Willie Robinson, as defendants. In 2014, an SPLC lawsuit ended a similar practice in the nearby state capital of Montgomery.

The lawsuit against Alexander City describes how in a town where almost 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, hundreds of impoverished people had been jailed or otherwise affected.

When a person appeared in municipal court, no effort was made to determine the individual’s ability to pay. There was generally no discussion about the right to a lawyer, and people who could not pay their fines in full were arrested by police without a warrant or probable cause, which also violated their right to legal representation. This happened even for people who brought a partial payment but needed time to come up with the rest.

Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP is serving as the SPLC’s co-counsel on the case.