Friday, August 26, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Shackled with debt

Sherwood is getting unwelcome national attention for its decades-long hot-check court that has brought the city millions in fines over the years but is now facing a court challenge that will definitely change the way the municipality runs the court.

The court’s future may be in doubt if the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wins its lawsuit against Sherwood, which stands accused of gouging people accused of writing hot checks and often jailing them for failure to pay up.

The ACLU accuses Sherwood’s court of sending defendants to debtors prison if they don’t pay thousands of dollars in hefty fines above the original checks.

Defendants in addition to Sherwood include District Court Judge Milas (Butch) Hale III and Pulaski County, which uses Sherwood to collect hot checks.

The plaintiffs include four people who were jailed “for their inability to pay court fines and fees in violation of a longstanding law forbidding the incarceration of people for failure to pay debts. Fees collected in addition to hot checks make up 12 percent of Sherwood’s budget.”

The hot-check court generates $2 million a year in revenue for the city. Judge Hale’s father, Milas Hale II, had presided over the court for several years. The younger Hale’s term ends in 2020. The hot-check court’s future remains uncertain if Sherwood can’t make a substantial profit. Otherwise, why bother taking hot-check cases from central Arkansas and beyond?

The lawsuit alleges that “through a labyrinthine and lucrative system, a single check for $15 returned for insufficient funds can be leveraged into many thousands of dollars in court costs, fines, and fees owed to Sherwood and Pulaski County.”

“Upon entering a conviction for a hot check misdemeanor, Judge Hale typically sentences the individual to probation and to pay the following amounts: restitution in at least the amount of the unpaid check, a $165 fine, $100 in court costs, a $25 Prosecuting Attorney Hot Check Fee, a $30 Restitution Fee, a $50 Warrant Fee, a $20 City Jail Fee, and a $20 County Jail Fee. Thus the court costs, fines, and fees associated with a hot check conviction, regardless of the amount of the unpaid check, exceed $400.”

Examples of exorbitant fees and fines have been widely reported, including Nikki Rachelle Petree, 40, of Beebe, who wrote a check for $28.93 that was returned for insufficient funds.

According to the lawsuit, “Over the next six years, Ms. Petree was arrested at least seven times as a result of this returned check, paid Sherwood at least $640 she could not afford to pay to cover court costs, fines and fees and has been jailed for over 25 days.”

Petree was jailed at the Pulaski County Detention Facility because she couldn’t pay $2,656.93 in court costs, fines and still faces thousands of dollars in unpaid costs, fines and fees.

“This debtors’ prison scheme generates huge revenues for the city,” according to the lawsuit. “Revenue from the district court constitutes nearly 12 percent of the city’s budget, second only to city and county sales tax.”

It’s anyone’s guess if the city can successfully defend itself from this lawsuit or if it will voluntarily reduce some of the draconian fines to appease critics. In any event, the lawsuit comes at an awkward time for Sherwood, which is also being sued over a lack of handicap access at public facilities.

Before next year’s budget is determined, Sherwood officials should call an emergency meeting and decide what financial hardships the city faces if the hot-check revenues dry up and what it will cost to make buildings more accessible for the handicapped.