US Marijuana Party

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Jail sentences for indigent inmates called illegal

Birmingham News staff writer

A minister, a city judge and lawyers are questioning municipal court sentences they say fill Birmingham City Jail with poor people who can't pay fines that would allow them to go free.

Lawyers from the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative have filed appeals in the cases of three inmates, and others are seeking ways to allow indigent offenders to perform community service instead of staying behind bars.

Executive Director Bryan Stevenson said the city's system operates like a debtors' prison. "It's unconscionable," said Stevenson. "These are not people who should be costing taxpayers money to be incarcerated. They do not present a serious threat to public safety."

Rev. Lawton Higgs, whose Church of the Reconciler runs a homeless outreach that draws hundreds to its downtown facilities, often sees people who've been in jail.

He gave this example: a homeless person urinates outside, gets charged with public lewdness and possibly trespassing or disorderly conduct. He pleads guilty to get out of jail, is put on probation but can't pay the fines because he's broke and misses court dates because he has no address to get the notices. The next time police stop him to run a background check, he's jailed on probation violation. "You can get caught in that cycle, then spend three of six years in the Birmingham City Jail, just for a misdemeanor," Higgs said.


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