Alabama blocked a man from voting because he owed $4

Sam Levine in Tuscaloosa
Thu 27 Feb 2020 17.30 GMT First published on Thu 27 Feb 2020 11.00 GMT
Alfonzo Tucker photographed at his home in Tuscaloosa. Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian
Alfonzo Tucker photographed at his home in Tuscaloosa. Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian

The fight to vote – Alabama
Alfonzo Tucker Jr is just one of millions of Americans who have been entangled in a racially biased system – and deprived of their democratic right

In 2018, with the midterm elections approaching, Alfonzo Tucker Jr was particularly eager to vote. The mayor of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Tucker’s hometown, was running for governor, and the year before he had canvassed for Doug Jones, a Democrat running in a closely watched US Senate race.

But Tucker wasn’t able to cast a ballot – state officials refused to even let him register. It wasn’t until weeks later that he learned why he had been deprived of the right to vote.

He owed the state $4.

The US is founded on the promise of democracy and fair representation, but it is also the country where minorities are frequently disenfranchised for political gain. Among the most vulnerable are millions of Americans, disproportionately African Americans, like Tucker, who have been entangled in America’s racially biased criminal justice system, and lose civil liberties like voting as a result.

The barriers facing Americans like Tucker, advocates say, are modern adaptations of poll taxes and other devices which were designed to keep people from the voting booths during the Jim Crow era – when white politicians used the law to curb the civil rights of African Americans. Alabama is one of 30 states that requires people with felony convictions to pay back the financial obligations associated with their sentence before they can vote again.

Tucker’s case is particularly glaring. He lives less than a hundred miles north-west of Selma, the birthplace of the voting rights movement in America. This week, civil rights leaders are commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches led by Martin Luther King Jr and civil rights activists as they protested against laws preventing African Americans from voting. Many were brutally beaten in Selma during the protests.

A letter hangs on Alfonzo Tucker’s refrigerator stating that his right to vote has been revoked. Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian
A letter hangs on Alfonzo Tucker’s refrigerator stating that his right to vote has been revoked. Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian

The specific policy that had ensnared Tucker dates back to the turn of the 20th century when Alabama leaders, openly seeking to preserve white supremacy, stripped anyone convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude”, among other offenses, of the right to vote.

“What is it that we want to do? Why, it is within the limits imposed by the federal constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state,” John Knox, the chair of the convention, said at the time. “If we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law – not by force or fraud,” he added.

Tucker said the legacy of that discrimination affects the lives of people like him today.

“I read about the challenges during the 60s, 50s, that black people had to overcome just to vote,” Tucker said. “It’s the same thing going on in 2020.”

Tucker, who sometimes goes by Zo, speaks softly and deliberately. He has lived in Tuscaloosa his whole life, now in a modest house 10 minutes outside of downtown. He says he would have left the city where he grew up, but never had the money.

Sitting in his living room, surrounded by pictures of family, Tucker said things are much different now for him than they were in the early 1990s, when he was much more “aggressive”. In the late 1980s, he got into a fight at a club with a University of Alabama football player and wound up being convicted of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor. A few years later, he fought with a police officer and was convicted of second-degree assault, a felony. He wound up going to prison for two years and serving several more on probation.

After he got out of prison, Tucker rebuilt his life, working at steel factories and in maintenance, and chipping away at the approximately $1,600 that the court had ordered him to pay. He had two more children, which made him want to stay out of trouble. He joined the Nation of Islam.

Before his conviction, Tucker had never voted. But in prison, Tucker had read about Medgar Evers, who fought for equal citizenship and was assassinated in Mississippi in 1963. When he got out, he started regularly voting in elections. He and his wife Narkita would bring his young children into the voting booth with them, wanting to teach them about the importance of a single vote, and the long struggle African Americans had faced to gain access to the ballot.

But in 2013, Tucker got a letter from his state officials saying he could no longer vote.

A voting sign near a main street in Tuscaloosa. Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian
A voting sign near a main street in Tuscaloosa. Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian

He was angry and upset, but didn’t act immediately – the letter didn’t tell him anything about how to get his voting rights back. Then came another letter, a few years later, this time addressed to his son, Alfonzo Tucker III, who had just turned 18, and claiming that he too was ineligible to vote. The younger Tucker, however, didn’t have a criminal record. It was a mistake, possibly because he shared his father’s name.

Tucker got his son registered to vote, but the episode lit a fire in him. As the 2018 midterm elections approached, he went to an event where activists were helping people with felony convictions learn about their voting rights, and called up the Alabama board of pardons and paroles to talk about his case. Two weeks later, the board sent him a letter saying he still owed $135.10 in connection with his conviction.

Tucker, who relies in part on disability income, borrowed money from his sister to pay off the debt. But just when he thought it was settled, a courthouse clerk told him he owed money for another decades-old criminal offense – an additional $5,535.47 which she said he had to pay back to gain back his vote.

Faced with the staggering amount, Tucker contacted Blair Bowie, an attorney at Campaign Legal Center, a Washington DC voting rights group. It took Bowie 15 minutes to realize Alabama officials made a huge mistake.

Under Alabama law, people with felonies only have to pay off the money originally assessed as part of their criminal conviction to regain their voting rights. By 2018, Tucker had paid back most of what he owed. But, unbeknown to him, the state had added an additional debt of $131.10, a fee that was irrelevant to whether he could vote because it was not part of his original conviction. And the $5,535.47 debt was from a misdemeanor offense, Bowie saw, which does not cause someone to lose their voting rights in Alabama.

All that Tucker actually owed in order to vote was $4.

“What is voter suppression if not officials wrongly telling you that you can’t vote?” Bowie said. “That’s been a classic way of disenfranchising people, particularly in Alabama.”

After he paid the $135.10, Tucker drove two hours to Montgomery, the state capitol, with a friend to hand-deliver the receipt to a staffer at the board of pardons and paroles.

Alfonzo Tucker holds his receipt for payment showing he paid the amount owed to restore his voting rights. Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian
Alfonzo Tucker holds his receipt for payment showing he paid the amount owed to restore his voting rights. Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian

Alfonzo Tucker holds his receipt for payment showing he paid the amount owed to restore his voting rights.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Alfonzo Tucker holds his receipt for payment showing he paid the amount owed to restore his voting rights. Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian
But weeks later he had not heard anything back. The elections came and went, and Tucker couldn’t vote. The parole board declined to comment on Tucker’s case.

Bowie eventually referred Tucker to John Paul Taylor, an organizer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, who followed up with the board and got Tucker registered to vote in 2019.

Bowie and Taylor said Tucker shouldn’t have had to rely on experts to get his voting rights back.

“Here’s a very clear example of a person who has jumped through every single hoop that you’ve given them and they’re still being denied because of something that they really don’t even know about,” Taylor said.

Meanwhile, Tucker and Bill Foster, the friend he went to Montgomery with, helped start a group in Tuscaloosa to assist people with felonies get their voting rights back. Tucker’s story helps people understand that they can in fact vote once they complete their sentence, said Larry Tucker, his cousin. And Alfonzo said he’s met other people who have wrongly been told they owe the state money.

So far, Tucker estimates that they’ve been able to help about 10 people – people like Terrance Gray, 49, who learned he was eligible to vote last year. Gray believed he had been ineligible to vote since he was released from prison in 1996.

“He told me that it will make a difference if more people go and vote,” Gray said of Tucker. “He’s always been on me about that.”

Tucker plans to cast his first ballot since the ordeal this year (he says he likes Bernie Sanders). He thinks the state should give him back the extra $131.10 that he paid.

Article originally published here

Cost of incarceration in the U.S. more than $1 trillion

article originally posted here by By Neil Schoenherr

More than half of the costs are borne by families, children and community members who have committed no crime

mass incarceration in the United States

The cost of incarceration in the United States exceeds $1 trillion, or six percent of gross domestic product, and dwarfs the amount spent on corrections alone, finds a new study from Washington University in St. Louis.

“The $80 billion spent annually on corrections is frequently cited as the cost of incarceration, but this figure considerably underestimates the true cost by ignoring important social costs,” said Carrie Pettus-Davis, assistant professor at the Brown School and an expert on incarceration.

A new study, “The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S.,” led by doctoral student Michael McLaughlin, with assistance from Pettus-Davis, draws on a burgeoning area of scholarship to assign monetary values to include costs to incarcerated persons, families, children and communities, which yield an aggregate burden of $1.2 trillion dollars.

Carrie Pettus-Davis
Carrie Pettus-Davis

“We find that for every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional $10 in social costs,” said Pettus-Davis, director of the Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice and co-director of the Smart Decarceration Initiative.

“More than half of the costs are borne by families, children and community members who have committed no crime,” she said.

The scale of incarceration in the U.S. over the past 40 years is unprecedented, Pettus-Davis said. The prison population grew seven-fold as this country became the world leader in incarceration.

“Researchers have devoted considerable effort to estimating the cost of crime, but no study has yet estimated the aggregate burden of incarceration,” Pettus-Davis said.

“Recent reports highlighting the costs to incarcerated persons, families, and communities have made it possible to estimate the true cost of incarceration,” she said. “This is important because it suggests that the true cost has been grossly underestimated, perhaps resulting in a level of incarceration beyond that which is socially optimal.”

 

Alabama Department Of Corrections Grievance against Officers Program

Alabama Department of Corrections started a grievance against Officers program. We inmates can file grievances against Officers who abuse us and/or abuse their positions. Lt. Bendford is our grievance Officer and she rules on all complaints. She’s been working with the same Officers and supervisors for years.

Alabama Department Of Corrections Grievance against Officers Program
Alabama Department Of Corrections Grievance against Officers Program

She even goes out to lunch with some of them. She has committed some of the same offences that grievances state, another has done. How can she be objective and unbiased? She can’t.

Every grievance filed against her co-workers are “unfounded”. We are discouraged and pray that the Feds will take over. Every person who works here needs to be removed.

We pray a Fed takeover because that’s our only hope at justice.

 

Transcribed from a letter by an inmate, identity withheld in fear of retaliation

Failing to pay your water bill should not be a crime

Chickasaw resident Sonya Ayers
Chickasaw resident Sonya Ayers

A city ordinance that criminalized the failure to pay a water bill was repealed by the city council in the town of Chickasaw, Alabama, last night in response to a Southern Poverty Law Center letter advising the city’s municipal judge that the ordinance is unconstitutional.

Chickasaw resident Sonya Ayers, 48, was convicted of a misdemeanor and ultimately jailed last year for more than a day after she was unable to pay her city utility bill.

Her water was turned off and she was ordered by the municipal court to pay more than $400 in fines and fees to the city. She also had to pay monthly supervision fees to Judicial Correction Services, a private, for-profit probation company. Ayers could not keep up with the payments and was arrested after failing to appear at a court hearing that she was not informed about.

“Failing to pay your water bill should not be a crime,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “Yet this is exactly what happened in Chickasaw with an unconstitutional ordinance that harshly punished people for their poverty.

“The action by the Chickasaw City Council will ensure that residents will not be prosecuted or face criminal penalties when they simply cannot afford to pay for running water in their homes. It’s a step in the right direction.”

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When Defense Lawyers Become Prosecutors

By J. Celso Castro Alves, Truthout | News Analysis

Scales of Justice weigh heavily against Defendants in Alabama

In theory, a public defender’s mission includes dedicated advocacy for clients against whom the power of the carceral state is mobilised. In theory, a public defender’s mission includes dedicated advocacy for clients against whom the power of the carceral state is mobilized. However, in practice, defenders sometimes end up working with the forces of power — and against the best interests of their clients. (Photo: Pixabay)

On January 5, 2015, Randall H. McCants Jr. was not alone when Judge James H. Roberts Jr. of the Sixth Judicial Circuit of the State of Alabama opened his courtroom for a plea hearing. “Mr. McCants is present in court with his attorneys, Jim Gentry and Mike Cartee,” he stated. Besides the judge’s reference to McCants’ court-appointed attorneys by their nicknames, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Roberts cited McCants’ constitutional rights before highlighting his defense attorneys’ central task: “Your attorneys are bound to do everything they can honorably and reasonably do to see that you obtain a fair and impartial trial.” McCants answered the judge’s questions with “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” Even to the charge of capital murder and the question of whether he understood that “the range of punishment is life without parole or death,” McCants responded, “yes, sir.”

According to the nine-page hearing transcript, Roberts knew that McCants had pled not-guilty during his post-arrest arraignment in January 2011. In fact, Roberts acknowledged that McCants’ attorneys had only recently “proposed a plea agreement” for the “lesser offence of murder.” Yet, at no point during the hearing did Roberts wonder about what prompted McCants’ sudden about-face. Did four mysterious years in pretrial detention impact McCants’ decision? Could McCants’ attorneys have coerced him to plead guilty by invoking fear that a greater punishment awaited him at trial? Whether McCants was mentally competent to grasp legal proceedings or understand that he was assuming full responsibility for the accidental death of a Tuscaloosa resident apparently did not cross Roberts’ mind either.

Rather, Judge Roberts proceeded with the plea colloquy by asking prosecutor Jonathan S. Cross to provide “some facts” for the first-degree murder plea. Compliant, Cross stood and delivered some skimpy facts in the most casual and sloppy fashion possible:

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The Forgotten

I sit back and watch things that go on. I use to stand up at the injustices and the wrongs done by officers, but retaliation against me for so long, i say nothing. I wonder if we are forgotten, or does society even care that we suffer abuse behind bars. There are plenty of female inmates that are here for drug convictions or robbery or theft of property and a lot get out after 5 years or less and keep breaking the law and keep coming back to prison.

The Forgotten - an inmates statement regarding the criminal judicial system in Alabama.
The Forgotten – an inmates statement regarding the criminal judicial system in Alabama and how it treats “violent female offenders” versus the “non-violent repeat offenders”.

And there are plenty of us who are here for defending our lives or that of our children, and by taking a life that was a threat to us or our loved ones, we forfeit our freedom and removed from our families. We are rarely ever given another chance at living in society, yet we are the ones who won’t commit another crime and keep returning to prison. We are not the ones society should fear. We don’t get high on drugs and break into your home to steal.

We are guilty of murdering one who was threatening to kill us. On those rare occasions when we are given another chance at society, we don’t come back, we don’t prey on society. We appreciate our new freedom because we have lost so much. Society shouldn’t worry about female violent offenders. 9 times out of 10, the person we killed was an abusive husband or boyfriend. It’s easy to judge us, but until your life or your children’s life has been threatened, you have no idea what you are capable of doing. The ones society should worry about granting parole to and the ones who get a slap on the hand with light sentences are the nonviolent offenders, society drug users and drug dealers. Society should fear these women. They will prey on your Mom & Dad, your sister and brother, your grand parents, your children.

The prison door is a revolving door for them. For us who are here for murder in self defence, serve our whole sentences and are rarely granted parole and those with life sentences end up dying in prison. We are locked up and forgotten and yet we are the least dangerous, the least of society’s worries.

Transcribed by admin, inmates name withheld in fear of retaliation

 

Why we should close women’s prisons and treat their crimes more fairly

Photograph: K C Bailey/NetflixImage from Orange Is The New Black

‘Nearly every incarcerated woman is the victim of a perverse and lazy policy disfigurement that fails to acknowledge the marked differences between female and male offenders.’

By  and originally published by the guardian
 Professor Mirko Bagaric is the Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Sentencing at Deakin University, Melbourne. Wednesday 1 June 2016 

Women almost never scare us; commit random acts of serious violence; violate our sexual integrity; or form organised crime networks and yet their prisons numbers are now the highest in recorded history.

The homogeneity of the human species breaks down when it comes to criminal behaviour. Women, who constitute slightly more than 50% of population, commit only about 20% of all crime. They commit even a lower portion of all serious crime.

Hillary Clinton is right to assert that the sentencing system should be reformed to reduce the growing number of female prisoners but the changes should go much further than has been suggested. We should implement concrete targets to remove the stains on our landscape and societal ethic that are women’s prisons.

There are remarkably similar patterns of female offending and incarceration in the United States and Australia. In the United States women commit only 17% of felonies, while in Australia they commit about 13% of the crimes dealt with in the higher courts.

Moreover, when it comes to sexual offences, rounded off to the nearest whole number, women constitute 0% of all offenders – that’s right, zero. The crimes they most commonly commit are drug and property offences. Thus, in the US, approximately 30% of female prisoners are incarcerated for property offences, and a further 26% for drug offences. The percentages for these offences are 26% and 17%, respectively, in Australia.

Women do of course commit homicide offences, but nearly always the victim is a relative and the crime was committed against the backdrop of an abusive relationship or depressive mindset. All homicides are heinous crimes but the types of homicides committed by women rarely involve random victims and hence do not engender community fear.

Despite this, the rate of female incarceration in both the United States and Australia is on the increase – far outstripping the increase in male incarceration levels. Women now comprise 8% of prisoners in the United States and Australia, which amounts to more than 200,000 incarcerated inmates in the US and 3,000 in Australia.

Nearly every one of these incarcerated women is the victim of a perverse and lazy policy disfigurement that fails to acknowledge the marked differences between female and male offenders. The differences are so stark that not only should women be treated more leniently because they commit less serious crime but they should also be treated more leniently when they commit the same crime as a man.

There are four major differences between male and female offenders.

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