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Court fees, restitution put people in dire straits after moving through criminal justice system researchers, lawyers say

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Just because a person pays their debts to society doesn't mean they're free. Most of the time, the money they owe in court fees, attorney's fees and perhaps bail puts them, or their families, in financial jail. Unfortunately, this puts them in a civil situation after they move on from criminal court.

People come to Legal Services Alabama in Huntsville on their most difficult days. Managing Attorney Holly Ray Blough said she sees people in desperation all the time.

"Maybe the son didn't show up to court, didn't do what he's supposed to, and mom now owes that bail bond," Ray Blough said. "They're coming after her in civil court, and if they win their judgement, they're able to garnish her wages, take a lien against her property, take other collection action against her."

Ray Blough said her clients are faced with tough decisions.

"You're looking at, 'do I leave my child, my family member in jail? Or do I take out this loan that's going to put me in financial jail?'" Ray Blough explained. "People choose financial jail."

Court fees and restitution can make people feel desperate. On Saturday, May 19, researchers and attorneys are using a free legal clinic in Huntsville to meet the people in the throes of these money issues.

"We're looking to measure the debt that those have on people's lives after they have been processed through the system to see what measures it drives them to take," Leah Nelson with Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice said.

The Alabama Nonviolent Offenders Organization is partnering with several agencies like Alabama Appleseed whose team is conducting a survey with the attendees on Saturday. That is happening during the free legal clinic at the United Way Building on Andrew Jackson Way in Huntsville. It begins at 9 a.m. and lasts until 5 p.m.

"It will help us paint a picture for lawmakers that shows these are not isolated incidents of people who were saddled with outrageous debt," Nelson explained.

Lawyers and researchers hope this data from the survey helps others see a different side to fighting crime.

"We do have people who say that they stole, or they committed petty theft to pay off, what to you or I sounds like, a relatively small court fee," Ray Blough said.

"It affects public safety in Alabama because what we're finding anecdotally is that some people end up committing crimes in order to pay off their criminal justice tab," Nelson said. "The solution is to make it so we're not incentivizing crime."

Another route people who are desperate to pay off court fees and fines take is predatory lending.

"They tend to have incredibly high-interest rates that make them nearly impossible to pay off," Ray Blough said. "You pay that loan off three or four times over the course of a year before it's finally paid in full."

Nelson said this financial burden puts people in tough situations.

"If you put people in a desperate situation of having debt they don't feel they'll be able to pay, they go to predatory lenders, and sometimes they'll even commit crimes," Nelson explained.

Nelson said she is talking about crimes like taking from family members or stealing identities.

"Those loans that they use to pay off their criminal justice debt in an effort to get back to zero can send them into a spiral of despair," Nelson explained.

In Alabama, people must have a source of income to get a payday loan. Alabama Appleseed reports nearly 90 percent of borrowers needed this money just to pay necessary living expenses. Sometimes the lenders only give a person 10 days to pay it all back.

"Predatory loans tend to have a very, very high interest rate," Ray Blough said. "They may not explain the terms to you very well when you pay them. You're generally paying them weekly or bi-weekly, as opposed to monthly."

Interest rates that can climb to more than 450 percent, leaving a person to drown in debt.

If anyone has questions about paying their court fees, or helping someone else, or if you have taken out a high-interest loan, Alabama Appleseed, Legal Services Alabama, and ANVOO encourage you to come to the free legal clinic on Saturday.