Arkansas ‘Debtors’ Prison’ Case Settles With New Court Procedures

By Daniel Gill

A suit alleging that indigent defendants in the “hot check” court of Sherwood, Ark., have been unconstitutionally imprisoned over their inability to pay fines has been settled.

The Arkansas affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, together with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, filed the class action lawsuit against the city and one judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

The suit alleged that the “hot check” division of the Sherwood District Court systematically incarcerated misdemeanor offenders for failing to pay their fines, without first questioning whether the defendants had the ability to make payment. The court also added new penalties and fines, including for being jailed, against the offenders, it also alleged.

The settlement, signed by the named plaintiffs and defendants City of Sherwood and Judge Milas Hale III, provides for new procedures to be followed by the court and the city.

The judge and city agreed to:

  •  Cease jailing defendants who can’t afford to pay court fines;
  •  Stop revoking drivers’ licenses for failure to pay fines;
  •  Affirmatively advise all defendants of their right to counsel, including a public defender at no cost;
  •  Assess all defendants’ ability to pay fines at the sentencing of any defendant for failure to pay;
  •  Allow community service instead of incarceration for failure to pay fines and restitution.
They did not admit to any of the allegations in the complaint.

Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, said in a statement: “We plan to continue working with Sherwood and other jurisdictions to ensure that all defendants are treated fairly, regardless of income. The criminalization of poverty is a nationwide problem, with the courts playing a major role. We will continue to challenge unjust court practices that harm the poor.”

“No one should be thrown in jail for bouncing a check, but that’s exactly what has been happening for years to our clients and hundreds of others,” Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement. “This resolution is a testament to their courage and persistence in seeking justice.”

The defendants, on the other hand, said that all the settlement does is reduce into writing changes the court had already put into place about a year ago. These changes came as the result of training that the judge received, Michael Mosely, attorney for Sherwood and Judge Hale, said. The court’s practices were never unconstitutional, he said.

“This is a good settlement because it reduces existing practices to writing. It could have been done a year ago,” Mosley told Bloomberg Law.

The plaintiffs’ demand for attorneys fees was a barrier to settling earlier, he said. The final settlement requires no payment of any money or attorney fees.

But a plaintiff’s attorney told Bloomberg Law that money wasn’t the issue.

“Our clients are very happy to see the court’s practices stop. This was never about money. The goal was to get changes in the court, and that’s what we got,” pro bono counsel J. Alexander Lawrence, of Morrison and Foerster, New York, told Bloomberg Law.

“The act of filing the case itself shined a light on the problem,” Lawrence said. This case may send a message to “other courts around the country preying on poor people, knowing that they may be next,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Gill in Washington at dgill@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jay Horowitz at JHorowitz@bna.com

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