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Go to Jail or Give Blood: a Shakespearean Bargain to the Poor

In Shakespeare's day, a pound of flesh served as security for debt. Now, a mere pint of blood will suffice ... if you owe court fees in Marion, Alabama at least.

Judge Marvin Wiggins offered offenders in his courtroom a deal in September -- they could pay up, or give a pint of blood and get $100 knocked off their fees. Or they could go to jail. "The sheriff has enough handcuffs," he said.

Blood From a Stone

Recently, court efforts to collect fees and fines from the poor have gotten national attention. The ACLU has sued courts in counties around the country on behalf of indigent people jailed for failure to pay fines without proper procedural protections.

While failure to pay fines is punishable, that is only true if the failure is willful rather than circumstantial. In other words, the law distinguishes between a person who won't pay and one who cannot. A person who can't pay cannot be jailed for this inability. Yet they are, all around the country, all the time.

Now the Southern Poverty Law Center is calling attention to one particular courtroom in Alabama and one day in September when Judge Wiggins told the defendants on his docket to go out and give blood. The mobile blood bank was just outside the courthouse and, apparently, employees there were aware of the alternative sentencing structure.

Unconstitutional and Unhealthy?

The arrangement was improper, however, even in the eyes of the company collecting blood. LifeSouth Vice President Jill Evans told the New York Times that the blood collected that day has since been quarantined and will not be used.

"We appreciate the judge's attempt to support the community's blood needs," Ms. Evans said. "However, LifeSouth prohibits blood donations from being considered as community service because it is potentially an unacceptable incentive for a volunteer donor."

It is also a public health risk. While there have been times, during wars particularly, that defendants were ordered to give blood, the practice is no longer considered acceptable, constitutional questions aside. The Food and Drug Administration requires blood that is given for money to be marked as "paid" and many hospitals will reject these transfusions.

"What happened is wrong in about 3,000 ways," Arthur L. Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at New York University told the New York Times. "You're basically sentencing someone to an invasive procedure that doesn't benefit them and isn't protecting the public health."

The Southern Poverty Law Center this week filed an ethics complaint against Judge Wiggins for committing "a violation of bodily integrity." The group called the entire proceeding unconstitutional. The judge reportedly did not respond to requests to comment.

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