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Civil Rights Groups’ Lawsuit Brings Reform to Arkansas “Hot Check” Court

November 14, 2017

Deputy Communications Director

Settlement Ensures Poor People in Sherwood, Arkansas, Won’t Be Locked Up for Court Debt They Can’t Afford to Pay

SHERWOOD, Ark. – Sherwood’s “hot check” court will no longer jail people who can’t afford to pay court fines and fees imposed for bouncing a check, according to the terms of a settlement announced today by the the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Arkansas and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster. Among several broad reforms to Sherwood’s practices, the settlement requires the court to evaluate each defendant’s ability to pay before determining the person’s sentence.

“Too many poor people are detained inside jails and prisons across our country merely because of their inability to pay fines and fees attached to low-level, nonviolent offenses,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Our clients brought this lawsuit to challenge the unconstitutional incarceration of poor defendants – a disproportionate number of whom are African American or minority – who cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines, fees and costs. This settlement will help dismantle the structures that have fueled and supported indigent incarceration in the City of Sherwood, Arkansas, for far too long. We will continue our work to fight debtors’ prisons and end mass incarceration across the country.”

“No one should be thrown in jail for bouncing a check, but that’s exactly what has been happening for years to our clients and hundreds of others,” said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas. “This resolution is a testament to their courage and persistence in seeking justice.”

Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, said: “We plan to continue working with Sherwood and other jurisdictions to ensure that all defendants are treated fairly, regardless of income. The criminalization of poverty is a nationwide problem, with the courts playing a major role. We will continue to challenge unjust court practices that harm the poor.”

The settlement is the result of the organizations’ 2016 lawsuit challenging Sherwood’s practices for collecting court debt. Prior to the lawsuit, poor defendants could be jailed and trapped in a cycle of escalating fines and fees after bouncing checks for as little as a few dollars.

“When the collection of fines and fees from poor people serves as a revenue generator rather than an effort to improve public safety, public confidence in the judicial system is eroded,” said J. Alexander Lawrence, partner at Morrison & Foerster. “This settlement puts a stop to the practice of indigent incarceration in the City of Sherwood, and brings a measure of justice to our clients and the entire Sherwood community.”

As part of the settlement, Sherwood District Court has agreed to:

  • Halt the jailing of defendants who can’t afford to pay court debts.
  • Halt the revocation of drivers’ licenses for failure to pay court debts.
  • Conduct an individualized evaluation at sentencing of a defendant’s ability to pay.
  • Provide a clear advisement to defendants of their right to counsel prior to the entry of any plea and their rights if they are unable to pay their court debt.
  • Give defendants the option of receiving a sentence of community service.
  • Provide defendants who fall behind in making payments an opportunity to adjust their payment schedule or waive remaining payments and an opportunity to be resentenced to community service.
  • Maintain a publicly accessible video recording of hot check court proceedings.

The Lawyers’ Committee and ACLU case was brought with assistance from attorneys Bettina Brownstein, Reggie Koch, and the law firm of Morrison and Foerster.

A copy of the settlement agreement is available here, and the stipulation is here.

About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law:

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination.  Now in its 54th year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is continuing its quest “Move America Toward Justice.”  The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.

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