2022 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Banking on Crime

About the Project

Alabama heaps fines on those least able to pay, creating a justice system that often turns police into debt collectors, rounding up and jailing those unable to keep up with the mounting costs of court debts.

This series went beyond the how of policing for profit and got to the why, finding cash-strapped courts and money-hungry police departments relying on cash they seized and fines they levied in order to maintain their own salaries. This harmful, oppressive system incentivizes police to criminalize even more people, journalists found as they uncovered some of the worst examples in the state.

This reporting exposed a rogue police force in the tiny north Alabama town of Brookside and examined an ankle monitor program that charged defendants $10 per day in Baldwin County along the Gulf Coast.

In Brookside, the reporting revealed how the tiny town’s police force mobilized to extract exorbitant fines and fees from local drivers and people passing by on the interstates. Brookside’s revenues from fines and forfeitures increased 640 percent in two years and came to supply half of the town’s annual budget. The town became the poster child for policing for profit, showing all of Alabama how the justice system fails the public when police become armed debt collectors. Even state lawmakers took notice, and quickly took action.

The reporting gave voice to people long ignored or written off by public officials, people drained of their life savings for minor traffic violations or sometimes for no crime at all, such as being stopped for driving in the left lane. The reporting told of unmarked police cars, missing paperwork and officers known only by their initials, even in official documents.

In Baldwin County, the reporting revealed that sheriff’s deputies fastened ankle monitors on hundreds of people who had not been convicted of any crimes, many charged with low-level offenses for which they would not face prison time even if convicted. The defendants faced arrest if they did not pay $10 per day for the devices that tracked their every move.

The reporting also found that, even when ankle monitors are intended as a progressive alternative to prison, the exorbitant costs disproportionately affect the poor. Rather than keeping people out of jail, the wide-ranging rules of ankle monitoring often further entangle people in the system due to minor rule violations. One woman in east Alabama spent more than half her income paying for ankle monitoring and was jailed for a malfunction beyond her control after falling behind on payments.

Pulled Over/Pulled Under, an accompanying documentary produced by and its sister site Reckon South, looked at the historical connections between race, oppression and criminalization in the South. It told the stories of people stuck in a cycle of fines and fees, of sisters jailed for inability to pay fines in central Alabama, and showed how burdensome fines can turn justice into profiteering that can affect anyone.