Several months ago the U.S. Department of Justice finalized change in an American city that has served as one of the flashpoints for the current antagonism between the citizenry and the criminal justice system: Ferguson, Missouri. Regardless of one’s feelings about the exact circumstances and motivations behind the death of Michael Brown, one fact has been glaringly clear: Law enforcement and court practices in the city were systemically unjust and entrenched. The problems were legion.

Many may have been aware of the biased and unfair routine practices of the police department in Ferguson, but often overlooked were others just as egregious in the municipal court system. 

In the agreement resolving the lawsuit bought by the DOJ against the city of Ferguson, a major component is the city’s promise to usher in needed reforms in the operation of its courts. The city has agreed to: eliminate unnecessary fees and alter the court’s fine and warrant process to ensure due process for all citizens; eliminate the use of secured money bond; ensure no person will be jailed for being poor; ensure municipal code enforcement is driven by a concern for public safety and not a desire to raise revenue for the city; ensure the independence of the court from the city prosecutor; and ensure the impartiality of the municipal judge. In Ferguson, justice had not been blind, impartial or fair.

Thankfully many municipalities have not had to experience social unrest to bring about fairness or change. Mobile is one. Quietly — and imperceptibly to many residents — Mobile has been going through a transformation when it comes to the management and practices of its jail and court system. Change need not always be dramatic and conspicuous. 

Jail court hearings, fair bail practices and not penalizing poverty are programs that have been instituted and targeted toward nonviolent, low-level offenders. The underlying thrusts of these programs is that too often society has heavily penalized such offenders, not because their actions or crimes were severe, but simply because they lacked the resources to obtain their freedom.

In reforming its bail and bond practices, Municipal Court Administrator Nathan Emmorey explained, “A person who’s bought into Metro Jail for a low-level offense, and doesn’t have any other pending offenses, gets booked, gets a court date and is then released. No bond is required. Our concern was we typically don’t sentence someone to jail on these low-level offenses, but we were holding people who got arrested for them due to a bond. If they couldn’t make bond, they were being kept in jail for an offense that if they pled guilty to at that moment in court, they oftentimes wouldn’t get any jail time for.” 

The practice was not only unfair but extremely wasteful from a taxpayer standpoint, because tax dollars were going toward the housing, feeding and health care of these individuals, draining resources that should be focused on individuals who need to be in jail, Emmorey noted.

A little over a week ago a program called Not Penalizing Poverty was initiated for those who were sentenced to jail time for nonviolent, low-level offenses. Through it, such offenders can now arrange through Mobile County Metro Jail to serve out their time in increments instead of all at once. The sentencing judge grants participation, intended for those who have to serve 30 days or less of jail time.

It operates during normal business hours Monday through Saturday. They show up on their scheduled days, are trustees of the jail and spend their time picking up litter, cutting grass, painting, etc. Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver observed, “It allows certain defendants … to keep their jobs and repay their debt to society not by cash, but rather by physical labor and time spent improving the community.” It’s not community service, because they’re actually under the control and custody of the jail, so they are serving their sentence.

“Instead of providing for all their needs as a part of their punishment, they’re providing for themselves by still being able to go to work,” Emmorey said. “We hear about the very real problem of over-incarceration in our country; this is a way to serve a jail sentence without spending nights in jail away from families and taking fathers and mothers away from children.” The Warden affirmed “It provides a reasonable low-risk, high-gain alternative to spending so many days and nights locked up at taxpayer expense.”

One of the net results of these efforts by the city over the last couple of years to reform our local justice system is the jail population. From a high of 1,800 inmates three summers ago, Metro Jail is dealing with a more manageable number currently of around 1,037 inmates, a historic low when comparing numbers over the past decade.

A lot of people like to talk about being tough on crime, but it’s more important for us to be smart in dealing with crime, and to be just in how we carry out punishments for crime. As Emmorey declared, “We’re working to make sure we treat people as justly as possible, and it’s not just about justice in the courtroom but throughout the whole process.” It’s a goal, an aspiration all Mobilians should support.