An Alabama judge allegedly strong-armed dozens of people into giving blood, and it's a sign of a much bigger problem

Blood or money.

No, we’re not talking about the Mafia code.

We’re talking about an Alabama judge who threatened people to choose between jail and a “forced blood ‘donation,'” according to a new ethics complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

On the morning of September 17, Judge Marvin W. Wiggins presided over a packed courtroom. Dozens of defendants sat for a hearing on the fines and court fees they owed the state.

In an audio recording obtained by the SPLC, Wiggins, a circuit court judge since 1999, offered defendants a shocking compromise.

“For your consideration, there’s a blood drive outside.” He continued: “If you do not have any money, and you do not want to go to jail, go out there and give blood and bring a receipt indicating that you did.”

Afraid of imprisonment, the majority of defendants, in effect, traded their blood for their freedom, according to the SPLC.

The SPLC complaint notes that virtually all the defendants owed “thousands of dollars to the court even years after making payments.” And these included fees that the defendants had been charged for their court-appointed lawyers.

Efforts by courts and local governments to generate revenue through fines for small offenses — often disproportionately affecting poor people — have come under intense media scrutiny lately.

While debtor’s prisons were abolished by the US in 1833, the state of Alabama still routinely locks people up because they can’t afford to pay their court fees, according to the SPLC. A recent SPLC lawsuit alleged that Alexander City, Alabama residents were being forced to “sit out” their debts in jail at a rate of $US20-$US40 per day instead of performing the requisite community service, or setting up payment plans.

“Far too often in Alabama, we find that your legal rights are tied to your bank account,” Sara Zampirein, a staff lawyer for the SPLC said in a prepared statement. “It’s a two-tiered system of justice — one for those who can pay and another for those who can’t. We must stop exploiting the poor.”

We left a message with Wiggins’ office and will update this post if we hear back. Check out the audio below:

h/t The New York Times

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