Arkansas Judge: There's No 'I Have Pancreatic Cancer' In Debtors' Prison

Sadly, the prisoners today tend not to be Gentlemen like Mr. Pickwick

In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread. -- Anatole France

The War on the Poor continues apace in Arkansas, where one city's district court has found an excellent source of revenue that doesn't require tax increases: pile up huge fines against people for minor bounced-check offenses, and then when they can't pay, lock 'em up to teach them a lesson about being responsible citizens. Christ almighty on a cherubim-powered Segway, we're looking forward to the deleted comments from people who think this is simply a great idea.

Among the folks who've been guests of the county jail thanks to this policy is Lee Robertson, a 44-year-old undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. Back in 2009, when he started chemo and was unable to work, he bounced 11 checks in small amounts totaling about $200. Oh, but that was just the start!

Six years and seven arrests later, in a closed courtroom in Sherwood District Court in Arkansas, Judge Milas “Butch” Hale sentenced the cancer patient to 90 days in jail. His crime? Owing the court $3,054.51.

Seems fair! Guy's a repeat offender; he should be glad they didn't shoot him. Here is a photo of Mr. Robertson, whose cancer is currently in remission:

Photo via Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

We'll go out on a limb and guess that if he were a white guy in a suit he might have been let off with simply paying the bounced checks, but you know us, bringing race into it like the huge bigots we are.

Now, Robertson is one of the plaintiffs in a class action suit in federal court being pursued by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union, claiming the city of Sherwood is running what is in effect a "modern-day debtors' prison" similar to the scam run by the courts in Ferguson, Missouri. That delightful operation was investigated by the Justice Department, eventually forcing all municipal court cases to be reassigned to circuit courts and resulting in the resignation of a scumbag judge who -- so ironical! -- failed to pay his own taxes.

Oh, and what a lovely little scam the city of Sherwood and Judge Hale are running!

In Sherwood, the “Hot Check Division” of the municipal court is drawing scrutiny. While the division is supposed to be part of the municipal court, the city has marketed the division to the business community in Pulaski County, according to the lawsuit. Sherwood lists the division as a “department” on its website, and calls the court’s work a “service” for merchants ― one that issues “over 35,000 warrants annually” on charges in connection with bad checks. The court collected nearly $12 million in five years.

The new lawsuit describes a “lucrative” system in Sherwood that only barely resembles an actual court or independent judicial process. Bailiffs tell defendants that the court is closed, not allowing family and friends inside, and defendants are forced to sign a “waiver of counsel” form to enter the courtroom, meaning they forfeit their right to an attorney.

Hey, you gotta be efficient about this stuff or you won't be able to extract maximum revenue deliver swift justice, right? Lawyers and family members would just get in the way. And since the defendants are all treated equally badly, there's your "due process" right there! It's such an efficient system that the multiple criminal charges and resulting fees from the court account for about 12 percent of the city's annual budget. And to deter (or maybe just enhance revenue from) repeat offenders, the fines are appropriately steep for minor offenses:

Each overdrawn check, no matter how small, can bring in $400 in fines and fees, plus restitution for the amount of the check.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the Sherwood court a "broken court system that disregards due process rights at every turn," as if that were a bad thing. How can it be broken when it's bringing in so much revenue, huh? Clearly a politically correct meaniepants who thinks courts should have something to do with "justice" instead of "keeping the poors in their place," Clarke went on:

People are doomed for failure when they appear before the court, and most significantly trapped in this never-ending cycle of expanding debt [...] With the resurgence of debtors’ prisons, we will continue to see people cycle in and our of jails and prisons across our country merely because of their inability to pay fines and fees tied to low-level, nonviolent offenses.

Yes, and? The lawsuit notes that if it weren't for the revenue stream from dinging poor people for minor violations, municipalities might have to raise taxes to pay for services. Now just how the hell do you expect local officials to get reelected if they go and raise taxes? Everything was working just fine until these liberal do-gooders started interfering. In addition to the fines and the month in jail for Robertson, the cancer patient, consider the case of another plaintiff, Nikki Petree, who bounced one check for $28.93. As a result of her stubborn insistence on remaining too poor to pay the huge fines that kept piling up on that one offense, she's since been arrested seven times and jailed for over 25 days; she's paid out at least $640 to the city, but that's not the full amount in fines she owes, the scofflaw:

Now, if you want to get all technical about it, the Justice Department has been reminding state court officials that jailing people because they're unable to pay court fees is what you could call "unconstitutional," at least under the technicality that the Supreme Court has ruled it's unconstitutional, but that seems awfully nitpicky.

In response to the lawsuit, Judge Hale insisted he isn't doing anything wrong at all, and by golly it's so unfair that he's being persecuted just for doing his job. He issued a statement explaining,

We do not run a so called 'debtor's prison' in Sherwood. If a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty, of writing a hot check we set up a payment plan. It is only after the third or fourth time that they fail to comply with a court order that we incarcerate

See? Totally fair -- we hit people with a $400 fine for a $30 bounced check, and then we only toss folks in the pokey after they refuse to become well off enough to pay their ever-expanding fines. That's what you call justice in these United States, and if you don't like it, you can move to some corrupt communist hellhole, or at least a municipality where the Justice Department has already made the courts stop this shit.

[HuffPo and KATV via RawStory]

Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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