An Arkansas Town Agrees to Criminal Justice Reform to Ensure That the Poor Are Not Jailed

For years, the city of Sherwood, Arkansas, home to about 30,000 people, had a practice of jailing people who could not afford to pay court costs incurred from bounced checks. Thousands of Arkansans were locked up—sometimes after bouncing checks in small amounts—when they could not pay crushing fees, fines, and other costs that compounded their debt by as much as 10 times the original amount.

Today, thanks to litigation brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of Arkansas, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Sherwood has agreed to stop jailing people for being poor.

Under this week’s settlement, the city agreed that it will not jail or issue arrest warrants for people because they can’t afford to pay their debts. Sherwood also agreed to clearly advise defendants of their rights before sentencing, ensure that defendants have access to counsel, and offer community service and other alternatives in lieu of court fines.

This is what criminal justice reform looks like.

Before this settlement, bouncing a check could have resulted in an arrest warrant, loss of driver’s license, levying of excessive fines, and even a jail sentence.

One defendant was arrested at least seven times, spent 25 days in jail, and was assessed $2,700 in court costs for bouncing a single $29 check. Another wrote 11 checks totaling about $200, and was arrested seven times, spent weeks in jail, and was assessed thousands of dollars in court costs, fines and fees.

The Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution prohibit the state from punishing someone just because they’re poor. These fundamental constitutional rights ensure that even if you are sentenced to pay a fine, you cannot then be re-arrested and sent to jail because of your inability to pay that fine.

Though this settlement marks a victory, Sherwood is one city. Vulnerable people in the state and across the nation are still being trapped in a never-ending cycle of escalating debt and incarceration — with devastating human costs. In too many communities, politicians and courts have created and are still carrying out one set of rules for those who are well-off, and another more punitive set of rules for those who aren’t.

Other Arkansas courts should take notice of these long-overdue reforms in Sherwood.

As illogical as it sounds, courts routinely suspend the drivers’ licenses of those who are too poor to pay their fines and fees on time, typically with no notice or opportunity to be heard. It’s illogical because, without a drivers’ license, people lose their jobs and income – making it even harder to pay what they owe. Many Arkansans have no other means of transportation for taking their children to school or to the doctor’s office, or getting to the job that buys the groceries; suspending their drivers’ licenses channels these people toward the necessity of committing the crime of driving without a license, yet another crime for which the court could fine or jail them.

These policies that punish the poor have created staggering racial disparities and fueled a mass incarceration crisis that has cost billions of dollars and failed to make anyone safer.

Arkansas public officials should reflect on the Constitution they have sworn to uphold and the rights it guarantees to every Arkansan, and carry out their duties accordingly. The right to a fair trial, due process, and equal protection under the law are not luxuries for the privileged few. They are freedoms afforded to all of us. There has been progress in Sherwood, and the rest of the state of Arkansas should take note and follow to protect the rights of all.

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Dr. Joseph Goebbels

"It's not a crime to be poor, but it might as well be.": Samuel Clemens (A.K.A. Mark Twain).

BrownPanther

This communique is being tracked.....

My Jack County Texas FBI boss made me say this.

Good bye all. In the past I have made curse and off topic comments about a variety of subjects that run the gamut. I apologize for these comments as some were offensive to many groups. For this I am sorry!

I meant to offend every single group not just a select few. I like free speech and the right to say whatever dumb ass thing you want.

But wait, there are consequences, right. Yes. If you walk into my house uninvited, without warrant, and unannounced, you will get blasted. Piggies and all.

God Bless private property rights.

Anonymous

Tough talk when the police can run you over with the toys they get from the Pentagon.
Yeah, blast a few Piggies, they'll come to the playground with bigger and better toys...

Anonymous

I just electronically blasted you. I watched as your microcircuits started to melt back into the undoped silicone from which they came. Bruhahahahahaha! You been burnt.

Nixonspeers

It’s was those dirty rotten Jews that reported our boys massacring those gooks. It’s on tape, arrest them.

Anonymous

What in God's name?

Laurette Dolan

I hope these comments are meant to be funny. Whether they are or not, just shows how completely childish you are. This is a very important subject. It's a great step towards criminal justice reform. Other cities and states across the USA should take a page out of their book.

ImportantJoke

What do you call two breast trapped in Roy Moore’s car? GROPED! Hahaha, too soon?

Anonymous

@Laurette Dolan - You are right, jailing people for being poor is just not right. We really have to work on criminal justice reform. Equal the playing field for everyone.

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