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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Anonymous

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Anonymous

need to investigate Fulton County, people are fined on top of fines when poor and unable to pay or jailed. Judges impose harsh fines on people that are poor and sent to prison,not to mention how public defenders scare people with mental illness into plea bargains. It's in the whole 16th judicial district. When a judge knows a person is on disability and unable to pay but still forces payment or jailed.That shows what the system is about. Even the department of community corrections impose a $35.00 month fee on people with limited income,instead of having them sign a waiver. The system needs complete overhaul.

Anonymous

Please check yellville jail. Poor conditions, bad staff and sheriff. Inmates treated inhumane. PLEASE WHO EVER READS THIS CHECH IT OUT.

Joel downing

Yell county courts and plainveiw just switched from paper to computer. Had a clerk yrs ago that didn't keep the books right and now that they are going through this they are nailing thousands with 15+ yrs of penalty at $10month. My fine for example is $350 but after their insane penalties, I now owe over $2200 on a no seatbelt and proof of insurance ticket that I can't prove I paid 17yrs ago. And to top this off they suspend my licence after all these years with no warning at all. I lost my job of 17yrs and dam near lost my house as well because of this. Remember this happened to thousands more than just me. Day I went to court I talked to dozens outside while we waited for this scam on the poor finish being played out in court. I traveled on my job of 17yrs. I tryed informing our AG about it and reply I got back said that's a county matter and they can't help. What exactly is the AGs job if it isn't the people's lawyer against lower courts.

Anonymous

Forgot to mention they suspended my licence with no warning. I found out when I got pulled over. And got another $550 for driving on suspended even though I had no clue it got suspended. Which racks that total on this ticket from almost 20yrs ago to $2800. That's over 4 times the amount of original ticket. I would call that way excessive.

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