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1 Day Late on Rent Can Land You in Jail? A Shockingly Draconian Renters Law (Hard Times USA)

How Arkansas's landlord-tenant law criminalizes the poor.

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In addition, because this law goes by strictly what landlords say, Human Rights Watch found one landlord gave a renter a three-day eviction notice instead of 10. Another filed charges against a woman the landlord had sold the house to.

And because the law is poorly written, judges improvise the punishment. Some try to avoid handing out charges and give tenants an extra week to move out. But others regularly hand out fines of $400 or detain tenants before trial. Human Rights Watch witnessed one district judge yell at an accused renter and compare her to a bank robber.

There is no statewide data on how many people have been affected by the Arkansas law, but the report does state that about a third of all the state’s residents (about 900,000 people) are renters, and landlord representatives say the law is used in the majority of eviction cases each year. Human Rights Watch found that at least 1,200 people were charged under the law in 2012, and more than 100 were convicted of a crime.

Human Rights Watch is advocating for reforming Arkansas’s civil evictions process. Currently, landlords claim they are using the criminal evictions statute because the civil process is slow and expensive. A solution was put on the table in 2011, when the Arkansas state legislature set up the Non-Legislative Commission on the Study of Landlord-Tenant Laws. The commission recommended eliminating the criminal evictions law and streamlining Arkansas’s civil evictions law. But Human Rights Watch argues that while this process of reformation is necessary, the criminal evictions law needs to be taken off the books.

Human Rights Watch concluded its report:

As long as Arkansas’ draconian criminal evictions law is on the books and as long as at least some county prosecutors are willing to enforce it, some of the state’s 900,000 tenants will continue to face abuse of their basic rights and face arrest and conviction over matters that should not be handled through the criminal law at all. Unscrupulous landlords will be able to misuse the criminal justice system as a tool of harassment and abuse. What’s more, Arkansas renters who fall into economic distress will risk having their problems compounded by a law that imposes financial penalties in excess of the rent they could not afford to pay in the first place.

For more information, read the full report here.

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

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