LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A central Arkansas city and a local judge agreed Tuesday to change the way they handle suspects charged with writing bad checks to address accusations they were effectively operating a debtors' prison that imposed hefty fines and jail time for thousands of poor residents.
A federal judge approved the settlement in the lawsuit against the city of Sherwood and District Court Judge Milas "Butch" Hale III. The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on behalf of five residents. The lawsuit was dismissed on procedural grounds in June, but the groups had asked the federal judge to reconsider that ruling.
The agreement calls for individualized evaluations of a defendant's ability to pay and the use of community service to pay fines. It states that the judge will only order a defendant jailed for failure to pay or to complete community service if he determines and makes written findings that the failure to comply was "willful." It also said the court won't order a person's driver's license revoked for not paying or performing community service.
The lawsuit claimed the hot check court issued an arrest warrant each time a person fails to make a payment, regardless of their ability to pay, and used each warrant as an opportunity to assess more fines and fees against the individual.
Michael Mosley, an attorney for Hale and Sherwood, said some of the changes existed before the lawsuit was filed last year while others were put in place after the judge attended training put on by the state's Administrative Office of the Courts.
"As we've always maintained, and this agreement reflects, the court's practices are constitutional and Judge Hale has always considered a person's ability to pay in determining a sentence after a finding of guilt," Mosley said in an email.
The settlement doesn't call for any money or attorneys' fees to be paid in the case.
"Our clients were looking to ensure that everyone who appears in that court is given due process under the law and this settlement ensures that," Holly Dickson, legal director for the ACLU of Arkansas, said.
The groups had claimed the court's practices were part of a nationwide problem of poor defendants being jailed for not paying fines and fees they could never afford. The issue drew attention during the investigation into the 2014 killing of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Similar challenges have been filed in other states, including a federal lawsuit in Oklahoma earlier this month that claims that state's debt-collection system routinely sends poor people to jail for failing to pay court fines and fees.
"This settlement will help dismantle the structures that have fueled and supported indigent incarceration in the City of Sherwood, Arkansas, for far too long," Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. "We will continue our work to fight debtors' prisons and end mass incarceration across the country."
Under the proposal, the Sherwood court will keep video recordings of its proceedings for one year and make them accessible to the public, and will allow the public to observe the proceedings. The lawsuit had accused Hale of closing court proceedings to the public, a claim he denied.
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