Civil rights group again faults punitive court fines in Arkansas | Arkansas Blog

Friday, March 15, 2019

Civil rights group again faults punitive court fines in Arkansas

Posted By on Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 10:22 AM

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The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has issued a new report on the punishing nature of fine systems in Arkansas courts that impoverish and jail people trapped with never-ending payments for "process" infractions.

The report is said to be based on two years of study.

“Mass incarceration has been fueled, in part, by repeated arrests of poor people who cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines, fees and costs associated with minor offenses like expired vehicle registration tags, seatbelt violations, and driving without insurance,” said Myesha Braden, Director for the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This report is an important step in our efforts to challenge the unconstitutional jailing of poor defendants who are unable to pay criminal justice debt, a practice that disproportionately affects African-Americans, Hispanics and individuals with low income,” said Braden

In 2017 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that in some cities, fines and fees collected by law enforcement from poor and minority citizens serves as a revenue generator rather than an effort to improve public safety. Such practices, the report found, “undermines public confidence in the judicial system.”

The report finds that many judges proceed directly to the punishments available through the Arkansas Fines Collection Law without first conducting the ability to pay determination mandated by Arkansas state law and federal law. 

* Missed payments are common in a state, unsurprising given a high poverty rate.  Missed payments cause new charges — Failure to Pay, Failure to Appear, and Contempt — and still more fines.

* Poor recordkeeping in courts makes it hard for defendants to keep up with obligations.

* Prolific arrests and driver license suspensions further impoverish people.

The committee has been active in attacking these practices. It sued and settled a case over practices in Sherwood municipal court. It has sued in White County where a judge routinely jails or suspends licenses of people who fail to pay fines. It is participating in a case now before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals over past court practices in Craighead County.

You can read the full report here. It includes some personal accounts. For example:

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The release also said:

We dedicate the report to Arkansans like Samantha Booten, who struggled with drug addiction that took her life in May 2017, at 28 years old. This mother-of-two spent half of the last four years of her life—nearly her daughter’s entire life—in jail for nonpayment of fines and fees stemming from two tickets in 2013; one for failure to wear a seat- belt and another for using a false name. Samantha bounced from county to county as process-based charges related to her original tickets became stacked one atop the other; incarceration in White County caused failure to appear charges in Saline County, resulting in rounds of incarceration in both counties. At the time of her death, Samantha had active cases in at least four counties. At no point during those four years and her multiple engagements with Arkansas courts and judges did anyone make a meaningful inquiry into Samantha’s ability to pay court-imposed fines and fees.
Proposed remedies?

* End the practices of issuing arrest warrants, incarcerating (including through probation revocation), and suspending the driver’s licenses of individuals for failing to pay fines and fees without affording Defendants notice that their ability to pay is a critical issue and providing them the opportunity to be heard during a proceeding where the court conducts an individualized “ability to pay” inquiry.

* Adopt judicial “bench cards” or similar resources detailing procedures for determining a defendant’s “ability to pay” in a manner consistent with the Arkansas Fines Collection Law, which defines “ability to pay” as “the resources of the defendant, including all available income and resources. . .sufficient to pay the fine and provide the defendant and his or her dependents with a reasonable subsistence compatible with health and decency.”

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