For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Derrick Robinson, Lawyers’ Committee, DRobinson@LawyersCommittee.org, 202-662-8317

Civil Rights Group Releases Report Alleging Focus On Revenue-Generation By Arkansas’s Criminal Justice System Increases Poverty And Mass Incarceration

WASHINGTON - A new report from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, released today, alleges that the practice of incarcerating people who owe fees and fines as a method of “forcing” payment and thereby generating revenue for municipal budgets, has criminalized poverty, expanded mass incarceration, and increased economic inequality in the State of Arkansas.  The report, “Too Poor to Pay:  How Arkansas’s Offender-Funded Justice System Drives Poverty and Mass Incarceration,” examines the problem of indigent incarceration in the State of Arkansas, as observed by the Lawyers’ Committee staff and volunteers during nearly two years of investigation, which included extensive court-watching, reviewing numerous public records, and interviewing individuals who were charged and/or incarcerated as the result of their inability to pay fines and fees. 

“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. 

The report also found that:

• Missed payments are a common occurrence in Arkansas, where nineteen percent of the population lives in poverty, and African Americans and Hispanics are twice as likely to suffer poverty.  Missed payments often result in “process-based” charges, like Failure to Pay, Failure to Appear, and Contempt, that result in additional fines and penalties;

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• Poor recordkeeping in Arkansas courts exacerbates the challenges faced by indigent defendants.  Defendants often have no way to track the total debt owed or ensure their payments are properly applied to their outstanding debt; and

• Prolific use of arrest warrants and driver’s license suspensions as methods of enforcing payment of fines and fees traps poor Arkansas in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration. 

With major support from Arnold Ventures, the Criminal Justice Project of the Lawyers’ Committee has been investigating the structures that support indigent incarceration in Arkansas, and working to help lay the groundwork for ending indigent incarceration across the state. 

In August 2018, the Lawyers’ Committee filed Mahoney v. Derrick, a lawsuit on behalf of thousands of individuals in White County, Arkansas, where a local judge routinely jails poor people for nonpayment of court-imposed fines and fees, and automatically suspends driver’s licenses in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Last spring, the Lawyers’ Committee filed an amicus curiae, “friend of the court,” brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit concerning Justice Network v. Craighead County, et al., a case highlighting the systemic problems inherent in the prevalence of for-profit companies within the criminal justice system, and scheduled for oral arguments on April 17, 2019.  The Lawyers’ Committee also partnered with the ACLU of Arkansas to bring Dade v. Sherwood, a lawsuit concerning operation of a debtors’ prison related to the “hot check” court in Sherwood, Arkansas.  The case, which settled in November 2017, ensured that residents of Sherwood no longer face incarceration or driver’s license revocation as the result of their inability to pay fines and fees. 

A recent unanimous decision by the United States Supreme Court has signaled new possibilities for advocates seeking to halt the proliferation of revenue-generating criminal law enforcement.  On February 20, 2019, the Court ruled in Timbs v. Indiana that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against excessive fines applies to the states under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which makes it illegal to deprive a person of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

The full report can be viewed here.

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The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers' Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law.

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