Alec Karakatsanis ’08 puts ‘human caging’ and ‘wealth-based detention’ in America on trial

In early 2014, Alec Karakatsansis ’08, used some of the money that he and a law-school classmate had recently received from the school’s Public Service Venture Fund seed grant to buy a plane ticket to Birmingham, Alabama, and rent a car. He planned to visit the judge he had clerked for in Montgomery after graduating, as well as other people he’d met during his time as a clerk and federal defender. Along the way, he was stopping in at local courts to see what was going on. “I would just go places with my hooded sweatshirt on,” he recalls, “and sit there and watch and interview people.”

One of the courtrooms was in Montgomery. It was a winter morning, and Karakatsanis saw that 67 people were set to be called in front of the judge. As he would later tell it, “All of them were African American; not a single one of them [was] accused of a crime. They were all in jail because they owed money to the city of Montgomery for unpaid traffic tickets.”

One of the people Karakatsanis saw called in front of the judge was Sharnalle Mitchell. She had been watching TV one Sunday night with her one-year-old on her lap and a four-year-old beside her when the Montgomery police burst into her home and arrested her—“not because she was a violent criminal or any kind of predator, but because she had some unpaid traffic tickets from 2010.”

Read the full article by Michael Zuckerman, titled “Criminal Injustice,” in the September-October 2017 issue of Harvard Magazine.