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Weekend Read: When justice depends on the size of your pocketbook

Tella Barnett fears she’ll end up behind bars again if she gets behind on her payments.

She’s one of thousands of people in Alabama who pay to stay out of prison. One day last March, she paid a $30 monitoring fee as well as a $40 supervision fee. She paid $40 in drug testing fees and $30 in “rescheduling fees.”

“Oh, my goodness, I can barely afford to eat,” said Barnett, 30. “I have three small children and I’m trying to pay for my home. I have $375 a month in rent, plus the power, plus the water, plus gas to get to work. It’s hard to pay that, it really is.”

No matter how hard it is – and no matter how little money she earns – she’ll have to pay those fees again next month and every month thereafter as long as she’s supervised by the community corrections program she reports to in northwest Alabama.

Many people in her situation do end up behind bars again.

Janet Gomez is one of them.

Last April, she was arrested and charged with first-degree escape after she got fed up with community corrections and stopped showing up for meetings and drug tests. Earlier, she had been ordered into a yearlong program at a Christian rehabilitation center called Center of Hope, apparently in violation of state rules because it was not a state-certified facility.

“[They] put me in a thrift store … they make you work there for free,” Gomez said. Like others sent there, she could not leave without permission from the community corrections program that was supervising her.

Though her escape charge eventually was dropped, Gomez was sent back in prison because she stopped taking drug tests.

In Alabama – where state officials are facing multiple lawsuits over inhumane conditions and rampant violence in the country’s most overcrowded prison system – community corrections programs have the potential to play a key role in reform efforts by safely reducing the number of people behind bars. Ideally, these programs allow people to stay in their communities, under supervision, while receiving rehabilitative services such as drug treatment or mental health counseling. The cost for each person is just a tiny fraction of what the state spends to incarcerate someone.

The problem, however, is that those costs are borne, overwhelmingly, by participants rather than the state.

An eight-month investigation by the SPLC – Opportunity Costs: Unequal Justice in Alabama’s Community Corrections Programs – reveals serious flaws in a loosely regulated, user-funded justice system that, in many locales, seems to be focused more on raising money from participants than on rehabilitation or public safety.

In a three-part series, investigative reporters Kathryn Casteel and Will Tucker expose a pay-to-play model that drains millions of dollars each year in fees from participants who mostly struggle to make ends meet. Many are under the constant threat of jail or prison if they’re unable to pay fees, which vary wildly from county to county and can be assessed for acts as innocuous as needing to reschedule an appointment.

As Casteel and Tucker write:

This system [in Alabama] relies on a patchwork of largely autonomous nonprofit organizations and county agencies that in many cases stay afloat only by charging fees from people who, like Barnett, are often struggling to feed their children and pay their bills. These programs can, in fact, become violation traps for low-income people, some of whom cycle in and out of programs for longer than they were initially sentenced or even wind up in jail or prison. The system, in fact, creates unequal justice by placing greater burdens on the poor than on those with means.

The investigation identified numerous problems. In some cases, local judges were sitting on the boards of nonprofits that operated the programs while, at the same time, sentencing people into them.

In one such case, a judge in Walker County set a $30,000 bond for an indigent woman facing a first offense. When she couldn’t pay it, the judge lowered the bond to $0 but ordered her into pre-trial work release as a condition. She worked as a cook at a barbecue restaurant, earning $375 a week, and paid $85 each week to the community corrections programs.

“It’s a beautiful system for sucking money out of the people who can least afford it,” public defender Sam Bentley told the SPLC. “Whether you call yourself a nonprofit or not, if you have a profit incentive – and somebody seems to have a profit incentive – then the cost is going to be borne on the backs of the indigent people who are charged, who are in the system.”

The SPLC investigation is already having an impact in Alabama.

Partly because of the way community corrections and separate but similar court programs overlap in some Alabama counties, Tella Barnett was charged twice each month for the same oversight services. When the SPLC brought it to light, a state agency terminated the contract with the nonprofit responsible for the duplicative fees.

In Walker County’s program, the subject of Part 2 of the series, the director resigned shortly after the SPLC requested detailed documents about the operation, and the judge who sat on the nonprofit’s board also resigned from the board. It’s the same county where one participant was improperly kept in the program, paying thousands in fees, for seven months after his sentence expired.

The interim director there acknowledges that the participant “fell through the cracks” and that “[a] lot of that could have been prevented.”

Despite the myriad problems uncovered by the SPLC, Casteel and Tucker found at least one community corrections program in the state that seemed to be a positive force in the lives of participants.

At the Southeast Alabama Court Services in Dale County, participants like Dixie Worrell say that the program administrators seem to truly care about helping the people put in their charge.

“It feels like a family, and I don’t have one,” Worrell said. “I’m grateful for this system … [Without it] I could still be a statistic in the jails.”

The program focuses more on rehabilitation and connecting participants with community resources than on supervision and revenue. Participants still have to pay a flat $100 monthly fee, which is more than many can afford. But the fee covers everything, including drug tests, and it’s far less than the total amounts charged by many other programs. For example, in Lauderdale County, a participant would pay $360 a month just for electronic monitoring, in addition to other fees.

And importantly, when they can’t pay, the program simply waives the fee, which happens about half the time.

“I’m not going to lean on clients for fees to increase revenue,” said the program’s director, Cheryl Leatherwood.

Leatherwood can relate to her clients because she overcame substance abuse earlier in her life.

“I always ask the question, in the back of my head, ‘Why is somebody in here? What did they not get?’ I treat them with respect. I don’t treat them as criminals. I treat them as if they are humans that made some very poor decisions.”

Community corrections programs hold promise. But the good examples cannot be sustained or replicated without statewide changes to the funding and supervision model. Even Dale County’s program is forced to solicit its own additional donations and charge a monthly fee that Leatherwood recognizes is a hardship for many clients.

The fundamental problem exposed in the SPLC investigation is a model that relies on forcing payments from those involved with the criminal justice system – a model that makes a person’s wealth or poverty a significant factor in the administration of justice.

The criminal justice system is a public responsibility and should be about rehabilitation and the safety of our communities – not about the pursuit of revenue from those involved with the system.

We’re committed to reforming the criminal justice system and we’ll continue to work in the courts and legislative arenas across the South – as well as to produce groundbreaking investigations – in pursuit of a more just system.