SPLC helps low-income people with traffic violations avoid jail

Published: Aug. 28, 2014 at 12:45 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 4, 2014 at 12:45 AM CDT
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(Source: WSFA 12 News)
(Source: WSFA 12 News)

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The City of Montgomery reached a settlement with the Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday that should help keep some people out of jail.

The SPLC sued the city for locking up low-income people who could not afford to pay fines associated with minor traffic violations.

It estimates that the city was locking up dozens of people every week because they could not afford to pay their traffic tickets.

One of those people was Harriet Cleveland. She lost her job and couldn't afford to pay her car insurance. She was caught one day driving without insurance. She says she had to drive her son to school.

Cleveland was threatened with jail time, but got probation.

In addition to the initial fine, she also had to pay another fee to a private company that was overseeing her probation.

It was too much; Cleveland couldn't keep up with the payments and was sent to jail.

"If you didn't have the $140, you had to report every week," said Cleveland. "I had to report every week for over a year because I didn't have the money. I would go to the neighborhood dumpsters. I think I've been to your dumpsters picking up cans to try to go sell to make money."

Cleveland spent ten days behind bars until the SPLC took her case.

SPLC Attorney David Dinielli says however that this is by no means a get out of jail free card.

"If someone is indigent and has broken a law, they still have to pay a price," said Dinielli. "What happens is that person will have an option, he or she will choose to pay $25 a month on fines or fees until they're paid off, or provide eight hours or more of community service per month, so that provides a more humane way for people to meet the debts that they have incurred. It also allows the city to continue to enforce its laws."

The SPLC estimates at least 2,000 Alabamians are locked up every month. They hope this settlement serves as a warning for other cities running what they call debtors prisons.

People within 125 percent of the federal poverty level, less than $25,000 a year for a family of three, will be recognized as indigent.

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