Nikki Petree could not have known when she wrote a check for $28.93 in the fall of 2011 that it would end up costing her hundreds of dollars and weeks spent in jail.
Petree works when she can, but thanks to physical ailments frequently relies on her family and friends to support her and her daughter. So when the check she wrote was returned for insufficient funds, she was funneled into the Hot Check Division of the Sherwood District Court in Sherwood, Arkansas. That courthouse, according to a lawsuit brought by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arkansas on Tuesday, has developed the practice of charging low-income people fines and fees they can’t afford and then jailing them when they can’t pay, essentially running a debtors prison.
That’s what happened to Petree. She has allegedly been arrested at least seven times over the last 15 years, spending more than 25 days in jail, and has already paid $640 for bouncing a check of less than $30. She currently sits in the Pulaski County Jail because she can’t come up with $2,656.93 in additional fees, according to the lawsuit.
“There are many individuals like Nikki Petree who are incarcerated for their inability to pay,” said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, on a call with the media.
The lawsuit from her organization and the ACLU of Arkansas is filed on behalf of five plaintiffs: four low-income residents of the city of Sherwood who have been allegedly jailed over an inability to pay fines and fees associated with bounced checks — all of whom are still either incarcerated or under threat of being put back in jail — and a resident of the city who is suing over the alleged misuse of his tax money to run the debtors prison scheme. It names the City of Sherwood, Pulaski County, and Judge Milas H. Hale, III, who presides over the Sherwood District Court, as defendants.
“The Sherwood District Court of Arkansas epitomizes the criminalization of poverty and the corrupting effect of financial incentives on our local courts,” Clarke said, calling the practices “brazen and unconstitutional.”
According to the lawsuit, the problems start before residents even get inside the courthouse. Lines stretch out from the court’s doors, and in order to enter, defendants are allegedly required to sign a form waiving their right to counsel without being informed about the consequences.
“What is especially egregious about this is it gets people into a cycle of jail and poverty and debt that they can’t possibly dig their way out of.”
Once inside, the court allegedly makes no inquiry as to whether the defendants can pay the fines and fees that are imposed on them. Those who can’t pay have an arrest warrant issued for them, and police officers knock on people’s doors, according to the lawsuit, threatening to arrest them if they can’t pay a given amount of money on the spot. If they don’t, they’re taken into custody.
“What is especially egregious about this is it gets people into a cycle of jail and poverty and debt that they can’t possibly dig their way out of,” said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, on the media call. “You can walk into a courtroom with a bad $15 check…and walk out with no less than $400 in fines and fees. And that’s just the beginning.”
The lawsuit also claims that the debtors prison scheme serves to enrich the government and court system, bringing $12 million in revenue from the hot check court over the last five years that gets funneled to the city, Pulaski County prosecutors, and the sheriff’s office.
“This has been going on for at least 25 years to our knowledge,” Sklar said. “They’re really leeching…off the people who have the least ability to pay.”
The organizations are also targeting a much larger and widespread practice that has cropped up across the country. “This case is about the criminalization of poverty and the resurgence of debtors prisons we’re seeing not just in Arkansas, but in many communities across the country,” said Clarke.
While the practice of jailing debtors was abolished centuries ago and the Supreme Court has ruled that people can’t be punished because they are poor, debtors prisons have experienced a revival as municipalities scrounge for funding amid budget limitations and anti-tax sentiment, using court fines and fees to keep their systems running. Lawsuits against debtors prison practices have been filed in a number of states, including Alabama, Missouri, and Louisiana.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has found that the practice of routinely jailing people who are too poor to pay fines and fees is widespread throughout the state as the courts have become financially dependent on that kind of revenue. The same thing was uncovered in Ferguson, Missouri after the police killing of Michael Brown, where police issue a huge number of traffic violations and those who can’t pay the fines are jailed, while the payments that do come in rake in millions of revenue.
The lawsuits have had some successes, however, abolishing the schemes and netting compensation for the victims. The Department of Justice has also gotten involved, sending a letter out to chief justices and court administrations across the country warning against operating a debtors prison.