The campaign against debtors’ prisons continues.
Earlier today, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU of Arkansas, and law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP, filed a class action civil rights suit that accuses a Sherwood, Arkansas, courthouse of jailing residents for their inability to pay fines and fees associated with low-level offenses or misdemeanors. The suit also names Pulaski County and Arkansas judge, Milas Hale, III.
The case was brought forth less than a week after the DOJ filed an injunction that bars the practice of jailing individuals who can’t post bail.
Lawyers filed on behalf of four city residents who claim their constitutional rights were violated by the Hot Check Division of the Sherwood District Court after they were jailed for not paying court fines and fees.
A fifth member, also named as a plaintiff, alleges the revenue generated from the accumulated fees have been misused, which violates concerned law-abiding taxpayers. The city of Sherwood has accumulated over $12 million over the course of five years, which directly benefits the prosecutor and sheriff’s office, according to counsel for the plaintiffs.
During an early afternoon call that discussed the legality of the case, representatives for the ACLU and the Lawyers’ Committee relayed the far-reaching disparities caused by the alleged illegal practice, one that leads to debtors’ prisons and disproportionately affects people of color.
“The resurgence of debtors’ prisons have entrapped poor people, too many who are African or minorities,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “The court has what we call a hot check courtroom and completely ignores the longstanding principle that a person cannot be punished because they are poor.”
The case also reveals a severe miscarriage of justice – most of the defendants were repeatedly jailed for their inability to pay or keep up with an unaffordable payment schedule.
According to Clarke, warrants are issued for defendants’ arrests each time they are unable to make a payment. Members of the Sherwood Police Department then approach the individual’s home and threaten arrest unless said person puts down a small sum to secure a court date.
Rita Sklar, executive director of Arkansas’ ACLU, said the group has been aware of the issue over the last 25 years. Researchers spent extensive time building a case, observing, and speaking with those affected, including tax-paying Sherwood residents.
“What we didn’t know was the extent to which this has been going on and all the details–what happens to people when they go to court, or if they miss a payment,” she said. According to Sklar, a bounced $15 check could accumulate over $400 in fines and fees.
She added that an internal investigation found the court forces defendants to waive their right to a lawyer, with the judge acting as lead prosecutor: “This court is held in secrecy. There’s no transcript kept to find out what’s going on.”
The ACLU and the Lawyers’ Committee say they are resigned to lead the charge in challenging and exposing debtors’ prisons, and will continue advocating common sense approaches to criminal justice debt.
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