Arkansas Judge Sued for ‘Debtors’ Prison’

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CN) – A class action filed Thursday accuses an Arkansas district court judge of running an illegal ‘debtors’ prison’ that punishes residents with jail time and fines for being poor.

Kimberly Snodgrass, one of the six lead plaintiffs, says she has spent one third of her life since 2014 in the White County Detention Center, almost solely for compliance issues. The single mother of three has been convicted of failure to pay Judge Mark Derrick 10 times, incurring additional debt and jail time with each incident.

“Even with a job and even with my mother it’s almost impossible,” Snodgrass said in an interview Thursday. “It’s stressful, it’s overwhelming and I just feel hopeless most of the time.”

Snodgrass, of Judsonia, Arkansas, and five other area residents with similar stories sued Derrick, who presides over the state’s 23rd Judicial District, in Pulaski County Court.

They claim Derrick’s court-imposed punishments that they can’t afford violated their constitutional rights, leaving them trapped “in a spiral of repetitive court proceedings, incarceration, and inescapable debt.”

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an interview that a 2016 lawsuit challenging the Hot Checks Division of the Sherwood, Arkansas District Court resulted in reforms that brought an end to its system.

Derrick, who was re-elected to a four-year term in 2016, routinely requires people to remain jailed for failure to pay until they can come up with the entire debt in cash without conducting an individualized analysis of their ability to pay, the 50-page lawsuit claims.

The plaintiffs also say he suspends people’s driver’s licenses upon non-appearance without adequate notice, and disregards state law requirements that he offer a defendant an appointed attorney.

“In our view, his policies are not just unlawful, they are inhumane,” Clarke said, noting that Derrick has ordered the arrests of those struggling with untreated health issues and addiction.

The lawsuit is the latest in a string of class actions across the country accusing officials of reinstituting so-called modern-day debtors’ prisons.

The legal challenges stem from the protests after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Arkansas, in August 2014. His death sparked national concern about policing in black communities using the court system to generate revenue off the backs of poor black people.

In December, a federal judge in Louisiana found the system used in New Orleans to be unconstitutional for charging poor prisoners fees they couldn’t pay, then relying on those fees to fund the court and pay salaries.

Sixteen percent of residents in White County, the ninth largest county in Arkansas, live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data. The median household income in 2016 was $42,100 and the per capita income was $22,500.

Still facing more than $700 in combined court debt each month, Snodgrass says her legal troubles in Derrick’s court have already caused her to lose two jobs. She fears being jailed again will result in a third lost job, and more time away from her children.

“I don’t want my kids to suffer anymore; they’ve been without me for so many days over the past several years just for not paying on my fines,” she said. “It’s not fair and it’s not right.”

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