A district judge based in White Hall, Arkansas, is accused of operating a ‘debtors’ prison,’ repeatedly locking up citizens too impoverished to cover court fines and fees.
Local and national civil rights organizations are taking up the case of six Arkansas residents who claim they were caught up in an inescapable circuit of punishment. Each of the half-dozen say they were convicted of misdemeanor offenses by Judge Mark Derrick, who’s now being sued in the capacity of his office.
NWAOnline.com reports that Derrick’s court mostly oversees misdemeanor offenses and traffic violations. Mateya Kelley, counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Criminal Justice Project, says the judge regularly imposes ‘extraordinarily high fines and fees.’ Offenders, regardless of circumstance and ability, are ordered to adhere to $100-per-month repayment plans.
Kelley says the monthly amount can’t be changed, even if residents can’t afford it but are willing to pay a lesser amount.
Once a payment is missed, Kelley says, Derrick refers to a “zero-tolerance” policy posted on the District Court’s website. Under Derrick’s policy, ‘offenders’ have their driver’s licenses suspended. Along with a revocation of driving privileges, individuals have arrest warrants issued—once they’re taken into custody, they’ll be pressed with additional misdemeanor charges.
“Now you’re in trouble because you’re too poor to pay and your driver’s license is suspended and you may be arrested,” Kelley said. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘If I miss 30 days, I’ll be fired’ or ‘I’ll miss a job interview and then how will I pay the fine?’”
The case also raises question about the practicality of bail systems, which are being challenged in the national legislature.
Bail amounts, say Kelley, are usually set at the amount an ‘offender’ owes the court—even if they manage to scrape enough together to get out of prison, they’re beset by another set of fees from the new misdemeanor charge.
“And the cycle begins again,” Kelley said. “It means people never get out.”
The 50-page complaint, detailed by NWA, includes an incident which caused a woman to lose custody of her children after her and her husband were incarcerated due to unpaid traffic fines. The woman purportedly owes White County close to $15,000. She’s spent one out of every five days in jail since her arrest in 2015.
Most of the charges levied against her, writes NWAOnline, stem from failure-to-pay warrants.
White Hall isn’t alone in enforcing a regime which seems reminiscent of the debtors’ prisons of days long gone.
“Poverty jailing is common in Arkansas,” Kelley said. “We thought that [a similar suit in Sherwood, AR] would be a big enough of a warning sign, a wake-up call to judges around the state to deal with this issue differently but it wasn’t.
“As soon as you start asking people about this problem, White County comes up,” she said. “What’s happening to them is unconstitutional, and we can’t look away from that. I really think that these processes are crushing people’s lives and their families. It’s about stopping what’s happening, and really bad things are happening.”