Debtors prisons were outlawed in the US almost 200 years ago. And then in 1983, in a case called Bearden v. Georgia, the court held that a judge has to first consider whether the defendant has the ability to pay but “willfully” refuses. However, it seems a Judge in Sherwood, Arkansas never got the memo.
Sherwood District Court Judge Milas “Butch” Hale, has been accused of running a “modern-day debtors’ prison”. And among his victims is a 44-year-old cancer patient.
From the Rawstory article:
“People are doomed for failure when they appear before the court, and most significantly trapped in this never-ending cycle of expanding debt,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “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.”
Just this week, Judge Hale sentenced Lee Robertson to 90 days in jail for owing the court $3,054.51. Mr. Robertson has been living with pancreatic cancer since 2009 and it has affected his ability to pay back past debts.
The suit brought against the judge alleges that defendants, “unknowingly sign away their right to an attorney in order to be let into the courtroom. The court also bars defendants’ family and friends from witnessing the proceedings, and no transcripts are kept off the hearings.” That sounds terribly illegal.
Given the way the court is set up, a single bounced check- written a decade ago- can turn into thousands and thousands of dollars in fines and fees for first- inability to pay the original check and then second- inability to pay the payments that were set up. But while the system is broken, it’s working; The Associated Press reported that 12 percent of the city’s budget comes from fines and forfeitures in Hale’s court- to the tune of $2.3 million dollars.
Speaking on his behalf and in his own defense, Judge Hale said, “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.” Sure.
We shall see.