Paradoxically, little of the money collected by courts makes it back into the judicial system. The money from county courts goes to the state to pay for schools, hospitals and roads, as well as projects like the American Village. (Towns and cities can also use money from fines to fund municipal projects directly — like expanding their police forces.) It is a state whose leaders, from Knox to George Wallace to the current governor, Kay Ivey, often profess an aversion to a strong central government, and yet cities and counties have little power over their own destinies, at least not their own finances.
Several years after her release from jail, just before she turned 30, Mrs. Williams finally got her license. But even today, she said, if she has to drive, she instantly gets a migraine headache, loses her appetite and thirst, struggles to make conversation and feels a great deal of anxiety. “It’s just a stressful, heavy, brooding feeling,” she said. She’ll do almost anything to avoid it, even pulling her son out of an after-school football program he loved because it was 25 minutes from their house. “Anything more than 10 to 15 minutes away, and I’m thinking, ‘Do I really want to do this?’”
Often, she doesn’t have much of a choice. Since the state underfunds public transit, residents like Mrs. Williams are often burdened with moving their families around at their own expense and on their own time, limiting their children’s extracurricular activities, say, to what is feasible with their work schedules, dispositions and finances. Shouldering these duties comes with a cost — in gas and in traffic tickets, of course, and also in time. It is a system designed to ensnare people like Mrs. Williams, and in that way, they suffer a double indignity: the disadvantages of a deliberately tightfisted state and the further cost incurred from court fees and fines.
Fines and fees have turned driving, the quintessential emblem of American freedom, into a burden on Mrs. Williams’s life. “It’s jail on wheels,” she told me.