LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CN) — A federal class action filed Tuesday accuses an Arkansas city and district court judge of running a debtors’ prison that traps poor residents into a never-ending spiral of incarceration and debt.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday on behalf of four Sherwood, Arkansas residents who claim their constitutional rights were violated by the Hot Check Division of the Sherwood District Court, where a $15 returned check can mushroom “into many thousands of dollars in court costs, fines and fees.”
Nikki Rachelle Petree, 40, one of the lead plaintiffs, says she wrote a single check for $28.93 in 2011 that was returned for insufficient funds.
Since then she has been arrested at least seven times, jailed for over 25 days, and paid approximately $640, but is still currently jailed because she can’t come up with the nearly $2,700 in court costs, fines and fees.
The class sued Sherwood, Pulaski County, and Judge Milas Hale III, who presides over the Sherwood District Court, in Arkansas Federal Court.
“The defendants are being jailed due to their poverty,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“In our view the Sherwood County District Court of Arkansas epitomizes the criminalization of poverty and the corrupting effect of financial incentives on our local courts,” she said.
According to the lawsuit, Sherwood, pop. 29,500, Pulaski County and their officials engaged in a policy of jailing poor individuals who owe court fines, fees and costs stemming from misdemeanor “hot check” convictions with no regard for their ability to pay.
“These costs are often borne by the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens in the community, including plaintiffs and others like them, who find themselves caught in a never-ending cycle of court proceedings they do not understand, arrests they cannot avoid, payments they cannot afford, and, all too often, weeks or months behind bars because they cannot pay for their freedom,” the lawsuit says.
It also says defendants were required to waive their right to counsel before entering the courtroom, and that court proceedings were closed to the public.
Sherwood is the latest city to face a federal class action accusing it of reinstituting so-called modern-day debtors’ prisons.
Earlier this month, 13 St. Louis County cities were sued for jailing people who are too poor to pay fines for traffic tickets and petty misdemeanors.
Other lawsuits have been filed against Georgia; New Orleans; San Francisco; Benton County, Wash.; Alexander City, Ala.; and Douglas County, (Omaha) Neb.
All the class actions stem from the protests after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, who was shot by a white Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9, 2014. His death sparked national concern about policing in black communities and cities using the court system as a revenue generator on the backs of poor black people.
“In our view the resurgence of debtor’s prisons across the country has entrapped poor people, too many of whom are African American or minority, in a cycle of escalating debt and unnecessary incarceration,” Clarke said. “The goal of our case is to put a stop to the brazen unconstitutional practices of the Sherwood District Court and its judge so that clients, poor people in Arkansas, are not unconstitutionally incarcerated despite their inability to pay.”
ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar said that what’s happening in Sherwood “is a nationwide problem.”
“Across the country, the cost of debtors’ prisons in human lives and public resources is enormous,” she said.
“It really is a rising problem.”