National

Updated: August 25, 2016

Cancer patient sent to 'debtors' prison' for bounced checks

Gavel (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Mark Metcalfe
Gavel (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

By Cox Media Group National Content Desk

Lee Robertson is one of many people suffering the consequences of ailing health and legal woes.

The 44-year-old began chemotherapy in 2009 to combat pancreatic cancer.

He couldn't work, wrote checks to pay for goods and services, and before long, he was in debt for owing a few stores about $200, The Huffington Post reported.

Over the course of six years, Robertson was arrested seven times, and was ultimately sentenced to 90 days in jail for owing the Sherwood District Court in Arkansas $3,054.51.

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This week, Sherwood District Court Judge Milas "Butch" Hale is the subject of a lawsuit claiming the judge has been running a "modern-day debtors' prison." The class action federal civil rights lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Robertson is one of the plaintiffs.

"This is a broken court system that disregards due process rights at every turn. People are doomed for failure when they appear before the court, and most significantly trapped in this never-ending cycle of expanding debt," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "With the resurgence of debtors' prisons, we will continue to see people cycle in and out of jails and prisons across our country merely because of their inability to pay fines and fees tied to low-level, nonviolent offenses."

The suit lawsuit describes a "lucrative" system in Sherwood that "only barely resembles an actual court or independent judicial process," The Post reported.

The suit alleges that defendants, including Robertson and three other plaintiffs, unknowingly forfeit their right to an attorney by signing a "waiver of counsel" that is required to be let into the courtroom and that the court bars defendants' family and friends from witnessing the proceedings. 

The suit also claims that the Sherwood Police Department acts as an "extension" of the court's "collections scheme," arresting hundreds of people on "failure to pay" or "failure to appear" charges.

"A single bounced check written 10 years ago for $15 can be leveraged into a debt of thousands and thousands of dollars in fines and fees for inability to pay the original check and then inability to pay the payments that were set up," state ACLU executive director Rita Sklar told KATV-TV.

"Each overdrawn check, no matter how small, can bring in $400 in fines and fees, plus restitution for the amount of the check," The Post reported, adding that the city's budget benefits from paid fines and fees.

"We do not run a so called 'debtor's prison' in Sherwood," Halle told KATV. "If a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty, of writing a hot check we set up a payment plan. It is only after the third or fourth time that they fail to comply with a court order that we incarcerate."

Read more at The Huffington Post.

Must read article on our new debtors' prison lawsuit in Sherwood, Arkansas by Ryan J. Reilly at The Huffington Post.

Posted by Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on Thursday, August 25, 2016

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