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A judge sentenced a cancer patient to 90 days in jail for writing merely $200 worth of bad checks in what critics are calling an unconstitutional debtors prison.
The man, Lee Robertson, was unable to pay the checks because chemotherapy made him too weak to work, and in jail he didn’t get his medicine, a lawsuit alleges.
Robertson was a victim of a court in Sherwood, Arkansas, that teams up with local businesses to exploit the poor and make money for the city, according to a lawsuit filed by the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. He was one of only hundreds of people who were jailed and forced to pay money to the courts because of small checks.
The court has collected about $12 million in five years, comprising about 12 percent of the city’s budget, according to The Huffington Post.
People are arrested for “failure to pay” or “failure to appear” in court, and even the smallest of overdrawn checks can bring fines of $400.
“This is a broken court system that disregards due process rights at every turn,” said Kristen Clarke, the executive director of the Lawyers Committee.
The suit alleges that the Hot Check Division of the Sherwood municipal court orders people to pay large fines to avoid time behind bars.
“People are doomed for failure when they appear before the court, and most significantly trapped in this never-ending cycle of expanding debt,” Clarke told The Post.
According to the suit, bailiffs tell defendants that family and friends are not allowed inside the court. Defendants are forced to sign a waiver of counsel, meaning they forfeit their right to have a lawyer present, The Post reported.
Another defendant, Nikki Petree, was arrested seven times for a $28.93 bad check. She served 25 days in jail and had to pay the city $640.
Another man, Richard Green Sr., was still paying fines of $200 a month on a bad check he wrote for $58 in 1998, The Arkansas Times reported. Green claims to have spent 405 days in jail because of the check.
“I’ve probably paid thousands and thousands of dollars,” Green said. “I have lost everything because of this. … It’s just a revolving cycle I’m on. You never know when you’re going to get it paid off. It’ll seem like you’re going to get it paid off, but you don’t get it paid off. You think it’s going down, but then it’s going back up on you. You never get through paying.”
Debtors’ prisons have been making a comeback in America even though the US Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1983. In 2014, National Public Radio uncovered evidence of people being jailed for debt all over the nation.
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