Tuesday, September 06, 2016

EDITORIAL >> No cash cow in Sherwood

Sherwood’s hot-check court saw about 75 defendants in about as many minutes early last Thursday morning.

The court’s staff—including Judge Milas (Butch) Hale—seemed confident and cordial, cheerfully greeting defendants, despite a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging that the court traps people in a cycle of fines and fees that produces millions of dollars for the city at the expense of the poor.

An analysis last week by Leader staff writer Rick Kron showed the hot-check court brings in much less money than the ACLU suit implied, a point Mayor Virginia Young made when the suit was filed. The hot-check court nets about $840,000 a year, or just 4 percent of the city’s revenues. The ACLU tried to suggest revenues from hot checks amounted to 12 percent of the city’s $21 million budget, or more than $2.5 million, but that figure includes all revenues from the city’s courts, not just hot checks.

The financial impact of the lawsuit will be a lot less damaging than was first reported even if the federal court rules that Hale must make adjustments and reduce or even repay fines. A 12 percent hit to the city’s budget would have been devastating. But a lawsuit that affects just 4 percent of Sherwood’s budget will have a minimal effect on the city’s finances.

Impoverished people are hit with fines and court fees at higher rates than middle-class defendants, which is a problem that should be addressed. Nevertheless, Sherwood’s hot-check court is no cash cow and is far from a paupers prison.

Many people end up with hefty fines, which will automatically double after failing to appear in court. So someone with a $350 fine who doesn’t show up for court a few times can turn fines into thousands of dollars and face jail time.

The ACLU and the judge should work to improve first-appearance rates to keep fines low and help people avoid jail time. The bigger the fines, the longer people will be obligated to report to court and pay down their fines.

Sherwood would be well served if a sign saying as much were to be placed on the judge’s bench on Thursdays, when hot-check court is held. Public defenders should distribute fliers with a summary about how to pay fines and the punishment for not showing up for court.

Some defendants probably don’t understand the consequences of failing to appear and others just don’t care and will begin making small monthly payments once they’re facing jail time. Not going to court is as disrespectful as intentionally writing bad checks to local businesses, and it is certainly more consequential.

Judge Hale said he has nothing to hide and welcomes the public and the media to observe the court’s proceedings. He wants people to know it’s not a shakedown of impoverished people to fill the city’s coffers.

It’s too early to say if the court’s practices will be reformed and how much money it will lose, but during Thursday’s session there wasn’t any finger wagging or stern lectures. It was an assembly line and right to the point.

Court was winding down about 8:30 a.m. as a reporter sat behind the judge’s bench and listened to the cases of a couple of stragglers.

Latonya Smith, who owes the court $4,208, because she probably failed to show up for court several times, the judge said.

“Mrs. Smith, you’re doing a good job keeping everything current,” Judge Hale complimented her. She said she’s juggling seven children. He reminded her to make her next payment and was dismissed.

Brandon Lewis, 33, of Pine Bluff was the last case for the day. His fine was set at $758 after failing to appear in court on the original hot-check charge.

Judge Hale asked him why he missed his last court date. “I had lost my job, a warrant got issued, and I got incarcerated in Jefferson County, and I start my job Friday,” Lewis answered.

The judge praised him for getting a job. Lewis agreed to pay $100 by the end of the month and continue monthly payments.

Court was adjourned. Outside, Lewis said he didn’t know about the hot-check warrant. He said in 2009, when he was living in Sherwood, he wrote a bad check for $60 at Kiehl Avenue Liquor when he bought a bottle of Grey Goose vodka.

Lewis knew Sherwood’s hot-check court is being sued, but declared Pine Bluff’s hot-check court, led by Judge Kim Bridgforth, to be much worse.

He drove away from the courthouse in a pristine Dodge Challenger with matte graphite rims to match.