UNDER PRESSURE: How fines and fees hurt people, undermine public safety, and drive Alabama’s racial wealth divide


38% admitted to having committed at least one crime to pay off their court debt.

This report examines in detail the collateral consequences of Alabama’s court debt system and explores the ways in which it undermines public safety and drives the state’s racial wealth divide. The authors 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. The authors 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.

The report’s findings are based on a 2014 survey and methodology devised by Professor Foster Cook.

You can read the full text of the report via Alabama Appleseed.

We should not tolerate a system that forces people to choose between paying for basic necessities like food and medicine, and paying their court debt.

Key Findings
  • About 83% of those surveyed gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support, in order to pay their court debt.
  • 38% admitted to having committed at least one crime to pay off their court debt. About 20% of those whose only previous offenses were traffic violations admitted to committing more serious offenses, including felonies, to pay off their traffic tickets (the most common offenses were selling drugs, stealing, and sex work).
  • 44% used payday or title loans to cover court debt.
  • Almost 70% were at some point declared indigent by a court, and by almost every measure, indigent survey-takers were treated more harshly than their non-indigent peers. They were more likely to have been turned down for or kicked out of diversion programs for financial reasons, more likely to have their debt increased, be threatened with jail, or actually be jailed for non-payment of court debt.
  • Almost 66% received money or food assistance from a faith-based charity or church that they would not have had to request if they weren’t paying court debt.
  • Almost half of the people who took our survey did not think they would ever be able to pay what they owe.

State legislators

  • Eliminate court costs and fees, and scale fines according to each person’s ability to pay.
  • Create a truly unified court system that includes municipal courts, and fully fund courts from Alabama’s state budget.
  • Prohibit the suspension of drivers’ licenses unless the suspension is public safety-focused and directly connected to a driving offense.
  • Ensure equal access to diversion programs.


  • Reduce debt assessed against any person found to be indigent for criminal representation purposes.
  • Docket hearings on ability to pay within 90 days of a missed payment, and appoint counsel at ability-to-pay hearings.
  • Appoint counsel any time a justice-involved individual faces loss of liberty.

District Attorneys

  • Avoid revenue streams that are funneled through the court system and voluntarily disclose revenue from all sources, by source, on an annual basis.
  • Apply an objective standard to determine eligibility for diversion and use an objective standard to determine indigency for purposes of participation in diversion programs.
  • Decline to establish District Attorney Restitution and Recovery Teams (DART).

Court Clerks

  • Prioritize making victims whole over repaying entities, such as DART teams, that assist with collections.
  • Make a practice of alerting judges when people are behind on payments so that ability-to-pay reviews can be conducted within 90 days.

Local governments

  • Instruct local law enforcement to de-emphasize the enforcement of Alabama’s marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia possession laws.
Leah Nelson, Frank Knaack, Dana Sweeney, Foster Cook, Ralph Hendrix, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Greater Birmingham Ministries, University of Alabama at Birmingham Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities, Legal Services of Alabama