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A court officer takes up the paddle 

The ACLU is on the case in Forrest City.

click to enlarge DICKSON: Corporal punishment is unconstitutional.
  • DICKSON: Corporal punishment is unconstitutional.

The Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is looking into allegations that a juvenile probation officer in Forrest City has been physically disciplining children under his supervision — spanking them with a leather belt and a paddle — over minor discipline problems.

ACLU attorney Holly Dickson described for the Arkansas Times a letter she sent in early March to Circuit Judge Baird Kinney, whose judicial district includes St. Francis County and Forrest City. In that letter, Dickson detailed claims that juvenile probation officer William Hall had spanked probationers with both a belt and a wooden paddle, had threatened juveniles with physical punishment in court, and had bullied parents into signing consent forms to allow him to spank their children.

“We've heard that this wasn't just one incident — that this was not an isolated incident,” Dixon said. “The report that we had said that the probation officer has parents of the probatees sign a form saying they'll allow him to do this, and that he has made statements [to parents], ‘If you don't sign this, we're going to send your child off to juvenile detention.' ”

Dickson said the ACLU got involved because the charges, if true, constitute a clear violation of constitutional rights. “As far back as 1968, the courts have said that corporal punishment, even on convicted adult prisoners, violates the Eighth Amendment,” Dickson said. “Since that type of punishment is unconstitutional as it applies to adults, it is certainly unconstitutional as it applies to juveniles.”

Dickson said that Judge Kinney has responded to her letter. “[He] said that he had heard about a similar claim a couple weeks ago — that he was surprised when he heard it, and that he told the probation officer that any threat or actual behavior had to be permanently quelled.” Dickson added that Kinney's response never confirmed whether or not spanking or paddling had actually occurred.

Reached in Forrest City, Judge Kinney said the first he heard about the allegations that Hall was using corporal punishment was through a message left on his office phone around two weeks ago — possibly, he said, one of the messages left by the Arkansas Times during our original inquiries about the case. “The day I heard,” Kinney said, “ I sent a message to [Hall] and said I don't know what it's about, but if you're doing that, we can't have that.”

Kinney said that in a subsequent conversation with the probation officer, he was told that the spanking was an isolated incident — that a single mother who was much smaller than her teen-age son asked Hall to physically discipline her child. Soon after that first conversation with Hall, Kinney said, he received a polite letter from the ACLU, inquiring about Hall's methods. He said that he showed the ACLU letter to Hall during a meeting with him and had Hall sign it. Kinney then faxed a copy back to Dickson, “to let her know that we had put him on notice that we had gotten a complaint against him.”

“Again,” Kinney said, “it's nothing that we asked him to do or that I knew anything about on the front end. I can't fix something that's already happened. Nobody has given me a complaint from a particular juvenile's family.”

Calling the case a one-time incident, Kinney said that he has quelled the situation and informed Hall that corporal punishment of juvenile probationers won't be tolerated. While Kinney admitted toward the end of our conversation that he had heard that Hall used corporal punishment on juvenile probationers in the days before he came to the bench, he insists it won't happen again.

“He's a big fellow and he's old school and he was doing it [corporal punishment] before I started 18 years ago,” Kinney said. “That doesn't mean that it's OK, but things have just changed a lot in the last 20 years. Maybe he's a little bit caveman-ish, but I'm going to stay on top of it and do the right thing.”

Probation Officer Hall didn't return the Times' phone calls.

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