Article from Reason by Scott Shackford.

A lawsuit filed Thursday accuses an Arkansas judge of running an unconstitutional debtor’s prison, locking up defendants for low-level misdemeanor crimes, and suspending their driver’s licenses unless they fork over thousands in fines, even if they’re poor or unemployed.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has filed a class action suit representing six named clients and others against Arkansas state District Judge Mark Derrick, accusing him of violating citizens’ rights by locking them up in White County because of their inability to pay court-imposed costs and fees. Derrick oversees eight low-level courts in different towns in White County (population: 79,000) and two in nearby Prairie County. These district courts handle non-jury cases like traffic and contempt proceedings. Judges are elected to four-year terms.

It’s important to note here that Derrick is handling misdemeanors, not felonies. He’s accused of imposing 30-day sentences for missing payments for fines for very low-level crimes. In fact, the lawsuit notes that these sentences are frequently twice the length of the sentences for the most serious of misdemeanors under state law. Defendants in his courtrooms are being punished more harshly for missing payments than for the underlying crimes. And the lawsuit notes that once somebody gets caught up in this cycle of missing payments, their jail time is not credited against this debt. The jail time is in addition to the debt imposed.

The 50-page lawsuit is full of horror stories of poor people stuck in this brutal cycle. One plaintiff, Kimberly Snodgrass, has been convicted by Derrick 10 separate times solely for her failure to pay fines. She has spent a third of her days since 2014 in jail because of these compliance issues and payment issues, not because she’s committing new crimes. The lawsuit claims she’s been kicked out of her place of residence four separate times because of these jailings. And because Derrick also suspended her driver’s license (which itself demands a fee to restore), she has a hard time maintaining a job. She owes the courts $500 a month for various fines and fees. If she fails to pay a single cent of that she faces a new warrant and more jail time.

Read the entire article at Reason.

Image Credit: By St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons