The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas have filed a class action civil rights lawsuit challenging what they call a “modern-day debtor’s prison” in the town of Sherwood, Ark.

The complaint alleges that the “Hot Check Division” of the Sherwood District Court, manned by Judge Milas “Butch” Hale, is unconstitutionally punishing poorer residents by criminalizing those who don’t have money to cover bounced checks, many times for minuscule amounts.

People like Lee Robertson: a cancer patient who in 2009 began racking up minor debts of between $5 and $41 while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In all, he owed about $200 to the neighborhood stores, the Huffington Post reported. Six years and seven arrests later, Judge Hale sentenced the 44-year-old to 90 days in prison for failing to pay more than $3,000 in court fees stemming from the original $200 debt conviction.

Robertson is now one of the plaintiffs in the class action suit in Sherwood. But, similar practices are being challenged in other jurisdictions across the country, activists say.

“The resurgence of debtors prisons across our country has entrapped poor people, too many of whom are African American or minority, in a cycle of escalating debt and unnecessary incarceration,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, in a statement. “The Sherwood District Court epitomizes the criminalization of poverty and the corrupting effect of financial incentives on our local courts.”

According to the suit, the Sherwood municipal court, Judge Hale and law enforcement personnel have concocted a “labyrinthine” and “lucrative” debt collection system by which a $15 bounced check or equally small debts can be turned into thousands in court costs, fines and fees.

The court issues an arrest warrant whenever an individual fails to pay fees and uses it as an opportunity to levy even more, the complaint adds. Individuals are also coerced by the threat of or actual jail time if they don’t pay the court fees stemming from the “hot check” conviction. And, defendants rights are further violated since they are forced to waive their right to counsel before entering the courtroom, and courtroom proceedings are closed to public scrutiny.

Marketed to the business community as a “service” that issues “over 35,000 warrants annually,” the scheme has netted over $12 million in five years. The district court provides about 12 percent of the city’s budget.

“When the criminal justice system serves as unscrupulous debt collectors for the public and private sector, without regard to due process, the government is not only violating people’s rights, it is facilitating the never-ending cycle of poverty: threatening the poor with incarceration for failure to pay bills they can’t pay, keeping them from jobs that may help them pay their bills, and stacking up fines that dig the poor into an even deeper hole,” said ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar. “We need open court proceedings and public accountability, fair, rational laws that take into account defendant’s ability to pay and prohibit incarceration for failure to pay, and we need to stop raising money on the backs of the poor.”

See a copy of the lawsuit here

 

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO