In Alabama, those who can’t afford to pay for their own defense in criminal court are more likely to be convicted, more likely to be sentenced to jail for misdemeanor crimes and pay more in court fines and fees than more affluent defendants, according to a report released Tuesday.
Measures for Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that gathers criminal justice system data, released the findings on Alabama on Tuesday, which show disparities in how Alabama counties handle individual defendants across a broad spectrum of characteristics between 2013 and 2017, but what stood out to researchers were disparities among indigent and non-indigent defendants. A person is considered by the courts to be indigent if they are found to be unable to pay for his or her defense.
Mikaela Rabinowitz, director of national engagement and field operations at Measures for Justice, told APR on Monday that researchers looked at both junctures at which a person post-arrest might leave the criminal justice system before an ultimate court decision on their case.
Court diversions are one of those junctures and can occur when a prosecutor may decide some other outcome may be best, such as community service. Dismissal of a case is another, Rabinowitz explained.
“In both of those two critical opportunities for someone to be diverted, to not enter the criminal justice system, we see a 30 percent greater likelihood to move out of the system if you are not indigent than if you are,” Rabinowitz said. “I think just the cumulative implications of that are enormous.”
Two Alabama counties stood out as having especially large disparities among those chosen for diversion. In Cleburne County, the ratio was 4.29 defendants with means for every 1 indigent defendant whose cases were diverted. In Houston County, the ratio was 4.27 to 1.
Indigent defendants in Talladega County had their cases dismissed 2.36 times less often than defendants with means, the report found, compared to 1.3 times less likely statewide.
Indigent defendants statewide were also more than twice as likely to have been sentenced to jail for nonviolent misdemeanors than non-indigent defendants, the data shows. In Lawrence County, the ratio was nearly 9 to 1, in Winston County it was 7.74 and in Jackson County, indigent defendants were 6.34 times as likely to be sentenced to jail for nonviolent misdemeanors.
The greatest disparities were found in court fines and fees, however. In Talladega County, fees assessed to indigent defendants were more than seven-and-a-half times as high as those assessed for defendants with means, compared to 1.58 times as high for indigent defendants statewide.
“As a general matter we would assume that folks who are indigent cannot afford to pay fines and fees, and would try to get those waived,” Rabinowitz said. “So the fact that folks who are indigent actually have a higher rate of fines and fees, is surprising, at minimum.”
That finding came while controlling for demographic characteristics, including race, gender, age and offense history, Rabinowitz said, making clear that being indigent makes a person 30 percent more likely to fare worse in Alabama courts for the same offense as someone more affluent.
Researchers did look at the role race may have played in the state’s court outcomes during those years, Rabinowitz said, but “we did not see huge systemic disparities by race.” The data also breaks down defendants by sex, age, offense severity, offense type, drug type, drug possession and domestic abuse.
Statewide, 60.2 percent of cases dismissed between 2013 and 2017, were domestic abuse cases, and domestic abuse cases comprised just 35 percent of cases that resulted in conviction. Those convicted in domestic abuse cases also paid less in court fines and fees than non-domestic abuse defendants, $316 to $393 respectively.