Alabama Judge Asks People in Legal Debt To Choose Between Donating Blood, or Doing Jail Time

People with outstanding legal debt could literally pay in blood if they were too poor to avoid the fines, and if they were unable or unwilling to do so, they could go directly to jail.
Publish date:
October 26, 2015
debt, prison, jail, prisoners' rights

It sounds like something out of a dystopian novel: A judge enters the room, sits down at the bench, and tells a room full of defendants that those who cannot pay their legal fees and court fines can give blood if they want to avoid jail time.

However, it actually happened in an Alabama courtroom in September, and the media have finally caught wind of it thanks to a Southern Poverty Law Center complaint requesting a judicial inquiry into Judge Marvin Wiggins, who should perhaps not be a judge.

Alabama, like a number of states, is creating what in effect is a debtors' prison system, despite the fact that the Constitution has 99 opinions on the subject and all of them are "no." More specifically, several court rulings have applied the Fourteenth Amendment to cases in which people have been imprisoned due to inability to pay, but that's not stopping a growing number of judges from doing just that.

The SPLC alleges — strongly backed by courtroom recording — that at a mass court hearing to resolve outstanding fines, the judge offered them the choice of donating to the blood drive outside or going to jail.

Allow this to sink in for a moment. People with outstanding legal debt could literally pay in blood if they were too poor to avoid the fines, and if they were unable or unwilling to do so, they could go direct to jail without passing go or collecting $200. The situation is so terrifyingly absurd that it should send chills down the spines of the public.

In the complaint, the SPLC goes over the specifics of the September 17, 2015, incident, including the judge's announcement that the sheriff had "enough handcuffs" for those present. It wasn't just about the very explicit threat that clearly exerted the state's ownership over the bodies of those involved, though. It was also, the organization says, about inadequate notice and potentially spurious or unfounded fines.

Like other states facing economic difficulties, Alabama is leveraging legal fines and fees as much as it can in an attempt to raise funds, at great cost to its citizens. It targets poor defendants who may lack the resources to fight court fees and fines, in a move that is being echoed across the country — and one that also serves as a reminder of an era in which people were invited to waive jail time with military enlistment, something that also still occurs. Of course, as with blood donation, the military doesn't always want all prospective enlistees.

There is something deeply disturbing about ordering people to give up bodily autonomy in a move that could be harmful for them as well as the public — not everyone is eligible to donate blood for a reason, and it's not because blood banks are whimsical. The situation preyed on people with a poor understanding of what was going on, as most showed up at the hearing not understanding that it regarded hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of outstanding debt to the court, and they also didn't understand what giving blood would do.

Would it wipe out their debt? Serve as an installment payment? All they knew was that the judge told them donating blood would allow them to leave the court that day, so they lined up at the blood donation truck outside.

The New York Times quotes an attorney who was present as saying: "I don’t know whether it’s legal or not. I don’t know if that violates half the Constitution." It's a bit distressing to hear that, given that the mandate clearly plays into the larger framework of the harmful ways the judicial system handles debt. It's not illegal to pay people for providing blood and plasma, but it's definitely not okay to coerce people into doing so, and just as imprisoning people for debt is unconstitutional, it's likely that obligating them to give blood would be as well.

Within the US legal system, debtors' prisons have been outlawed for over 200 years, reflecting grave concerns about their political and social implications. Indigent people, the judicial system has ruled, should not be punished for being poor.

In actuality, of course, low income people in the United States are punished for their financial situation in a variety of ways on a daily basis, including within the legal system, but the problem is accelerating of late as states scrabble to come up with sufficient funds to run basic operations.

Thus, many states are instituting a mounting number of court fees, fines, and penalties, even on relatively routine and low-level legal infractions. Offenders are paying for court fines, jail maintenance, legal services, administrative services, and more. These fines can quickly rack up, which is part of the goal: States want to squeeze money out of offenders. However, low income people can't necessarily afford to pay them — and, of course, they're more likely to end up in situations where they get dinged with such fees in the first place. The result is a system that disproportionately targets poor people, puts them in debt, and then jails them for being unable to pay, which is a blatant violation of legal precedent.

In some cases, people aren't even guilty, and after being absolved, they're still being threatened with warrants. This is an egregious violation of due process that comes with very serious implications for low income people, as even if they can successfully fight questionable charges, they may still face legal penalties. They're paying, in other words, for being accused of committing crimes. It's a bizarre perversion of justice in a nation where wealthier people can afford to casually pay fees without thinking about it, while courts, municipalities, and counties finance their operations on the back of the poor.

The ACLU, SPLC, and Marshall Project, among others, are taking on the problem of debtors' prisons in the United States, and it's an uphill battle. One by one, they're suing some of the biggest offenders — including New Orleans and Ferguson — establishing precedents they're using to knock down the next in line. The fact that we're still fighting this problem centuries after legislators and legal authorities very decisively determined that they wanted to part from the British tradition of imprisoning people for owing money is a troubling testimony to the state of low income and working class people in America.

There's a particularly bitter parting twist in this story: LifeSouth, the organization that collected the blood, was forced to discard almost all of the units donated as a result of concerns about safety and integrity, because once the blood was quarantined and screened and donors were impossible to contact, it had no choice. Moreover, those who donated blood didn't even receive the financial settlement Judge Wiggins offered — it was a losing proposition for everyone, including possibly the judge if the state does determine that he should be sanctioned for his actions.

Photos: Fort Bragg, Brian (Flickr/CC)