U.S. News

Arkansas town reaches settlement in 'debtors' prison' lawsuit

(Reuters) - An Arkansas town has agreed not to jail defendants who cannot afford to pay court fees after it was sued by civil rights groups who charged it ran what amounted to a modern-day debtors’ prison.

The Little Rock suburb of Sherwood will give defendants the option of doing community service to cover fines under the settlement filed in a federal district court in Arkansas on Tuesday.

Groups including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the town of about 30,000 people in August 2016, saying it had generated some $12 million over the past five years through an illegal system that targeted African-American residents.

There was a “hot check” court where Sherwood officials could leverage a check with insufficient funds written for as little as $15 into several thousand of dollars in court fees and fines enforced with jail for those who do not pay, the lawsuit said.

“Too many poor people are detained inside jails and prisons across our country merely because of their inability to pay fines and fees attached to low-level, nonviolent offenses,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The deal calls for charges to be dismissed without prejudice and the finding of no fault or liability among the parties.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said in a September report that there was a nationwide problem of local courts imposing inordinate fees on the poor and jailing them if they did not pay.

Michael Mosley, an attorney for the city and Sherwood district court Judge Milas Hale, said Hale had always considered a person’s ability to pay in determining a sentence after a finding of guilt.

“As we’ve always maintained, and this agreement reflects, the Court’s practices are constitutional,” he said in an email.

Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; editing by Grant McCool