By Kylie Orme for BiolawToday.org.
Several weeks ago, Judge Wiggins, a circuit court judge in Marion, Alabama, sparked controversy when he told a courtroom full of offenders that if they did not have the money to pay their fines, they could go outside of the courtroom and donate blood, or go to jail.
In an interview with an ABC News affiliate in Houston, Judge Wiggins defended his proposed solution by stating that donating blood was “a creative alternative to help them pay their fines.” He explained that the people coming through his court don’t have the income to pay. “So as an option sometimes to paying the fine, you may allow them to do community services.” His community service option was having the offenders donate blood. In essence, offenders went from two options—pay or go to jail—to three options—pay, donate blood to a good cause, or go to jail.
The Poor Get Poorer
Part of the controversy surrounding Judge Wiggins’ creative solution is the idea that the State should not be profiting off of the inability of the defendants to pay their fines. This is a valid issue, but is not directly relevant to Judge Wiggins’ decision. The other part of the controversy is the notion that courts are not allowed to jail citizens for being unable to pay fines, which is not an entirely accurate statement. Although the ethics are highly debated, there are several situations when it is legal for the State to incarcerate offenders who do not pay their fines.
In Bearden v. Georgia,  the seminal “debtor’s prison” case of 1983, the court held that the State was allowed to place the offender in jail if the court determined that the offender did not make “sufficient bona fide efforts to pay his fine, or determine that alternate punishment is not adequate to meet the State’s interests in punishment and deterrence.” In those two instances, imprisonment is a permissible sentence. Moreover, many State official get around the technicality of debtor’s prisons by claiming the defendants are going to jail not for their debts but for violating a court order.
Modern Day Debtor’s Prison
Although they were discontinued in the 1800s, debtor’s prisons were once prevalently used throughout the United States to house those who could not pay off their privately accrued debt. While the United States no longer uses brick and mortar “debtor’s prisons,” the phrase “Modern-Day Debtor’s Prison” has been used a pejorative for matters related to a fee imposed in criminal judgments.
In September of this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal lawsuit against Alexander City, Alabama for operating an alleged “modern-day debtor’s prison.” According to the lawsuit, offenders who come to court and can’t find the money to pay their fines are arrested and jailed. The SPLC’s argument is that the State doesn’t offer alternatives other than jail time. “Rather than offer community service to the indigent or allow individuals to set up a payment plan, people are held at the city jail until someone pays the fine or until they ‘sit out’ their time at a rate of $20 per day toward their debt – or $40 per day if appointed as a jail trustee to do jobs such as laundry, cleaning and washing police cars.” However, isn’t offering blood donations in lieu of payment an alternative to jail time? It seems as though Judge Wiggins’ proposed solution is both an alternative and a community service.
Door Number Three
If the ethical problem with jailing those who cannot pay lies in the fact that offenders are being taken to jail without being offered an alternative way out, it seems that Judge Wiggins’ proposal is the perfect creative solution. It allows another way for people to pay off their fines without having to sit in jail accruing $20 a day. It is door number three.
In isolation, allowing a fine to be paid off through the donation of blood is a great idea, whereas forcing the donation is not. However, no one was forced into giving blood. First off, every offender was given the option of not committing a crime. Second, because they chose to commit a crime, they were given the option of paying or going to jail. So why are we condemning a judge who tried to help the people of his own community by giving them another way out of jail?
The media reporting on this issue would have you think that Judge Wiggins is heartless and immoral. But in taking a step back, it’s possible that he is onto a viable, mutually beneficial solution for both paying fines and performing community service acts. Moreover, with an alternative solution in the future, offenders may empower themselves instead of being pigeonholed into paying the State. It is even possible that because of Judge Wiggins and suggestions just like his, additional alternative methods of payment will be created, and it will be easier than ever before for offenders to be able to pay off their fines through the avenue of their choosing.
Kylie is currently a second-year law student at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, where she is a member of the Utah Law Review. She graduated from Brigham Young University in 2012 with a B.A. in Advertising. Kylie plans to pursue a career in health law, specifically working with the law as applicable to innovative biotechnology. During her 1L summer, she clerked at Snow, Christensen & Martineau, where she will return for her 2L summer. In her spare time, she enjoys woodworking, traveling the world with her husband, and reading fiction novels.
 It is important to note that after receiving a complaint, LifeSouth “quarantined and tested the blood, tried to contact all the donors and eventually discarded nearly all of the blood units collected.” http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/10/20/us/for-offenders-who-cant-pay-its-a-pint-of-blood-or-jail-time.html?_r=1&referer=http://m.facebook.com. However, there is no indication that with more organization, authorization, and warning that the blood would be discarded in different scenarios in the future.
 Another issue to consider is discrimination against certain classes, such as: homosexual males and patients who certain types of medication, which may be explored in a future post. See Travis Walker, The Donation Ban on Gay Blood, http://www.law.utah.edu/the-donation-ban-on-gay-blood/ for more detail.
 Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 674, 103 S. Ct. 2064, 2074, 76 L. Ed. 2d 221 (1983)