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Arkansas judge operating debtor prison, lawsuit claims

A White County district judge is effectively operating a debtor's prison -- an endless cycle of arrests and fines that ensnares impoverished citizens -- according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Pulaski County Circuit Court.

A combination of local and national civil-rights law committees filed the lawsuit on behalf of six Arkansas residents who allege misdemeanor offenders are often caught up in an inescapable cycle of punishment in District Judge Mark Derrick's court.

Derrick, the only defendant, is being sued in his official capacity as district judge. He was elected to his position in 2012 and reelected in 2016.

The judge did not return requests for comment on the lawsuit Thursday.

Derrick's court sees primarily misdemeanor offenders and traffic violations, said Mateya Kelley, counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law's Criminal Justice Project, one of the committees that filed suit.

Kelley said Derrick routinely imposes "extraordinarily high fines and fees" and then sets a $100-per-month payment plan across the board. Kelley said the monthly amount cannot be changed, even for people who cannot pay $100 each month but could manage smaller payments.

Once a payment is missed, Kelley said Derrick, in accordance with his zero-tolerance policy posted on a sign in the Bebee courthouse, suspends the individual's driver's license and issues a warrant for his arrest for a new misdemeanor charge.

"Now you're in trouble because you're too poor to pay and your driver's license is suspended and you may be arrested," Kelley said. "I've had people tell me, 'If I miss work 30 days, I'll be fired' or 'I'll miss a job interview and then how will I pay the fine?'"

The bail for a person incarcerated for failure to pay, Kelley said, is often set at the amount they owe. Even if they make bail and pay back the money indebted, the individual then receives a new fine for the misdemeanor charge.

"And the cycle begins again," Kelley said. "It means people never get out."

The six plaintiffs -- Nikita Lee Mahoney, Kimberly Ann Snodgrass, Christopher Snodgrass, Detrick Brandon, Tina Marie Phares and Dazarious Braggs -- have all been in Derrick's court.

The 50-page complaint filed Thursday details each of their encounters with Derrick -- from the woman who lost her children after she and her husband were incarcerated for failing to pay traffic fines to the woman who owes White County $15,000 and has spent one out of every five days in the White County jail since her first arrest in 2015, primarily on failure-to-pay charges.

The suit comes just two years after the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a similar complaint against the city of Sherwood and Pulaski County. That case ended in an agreement wherein Sherwood's 'hot check' court pledged to no longer jail people who could not afford to pay court fines and fees imposed for a bounced check.

"Poverty jailing is common in Arkansas," Kelley said. "We thought that [the Sherwood lawsuit] would be a big enough of a warning sign, a wake up call to judges around the state to deal with this issue differently but it wasn't."

After the Sherwood lawsuit was closed, Kelley said the Lawyer's Committee began receiving dozens of calls from other people in the state who faced similar cycles of debt and incarceration -- many of those calls came from White County.

"As soon as you start asking people about this problem, White County comes up," Kelley said. "What's happening to them is unconstitutional, and we can't look away from that. I really think that these processes are crushing people's lives and their families. It's about stopping what's happening, and really bad things that are happening."

Metro on 08/10/2018

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