Human Rights

35 Days in Jail for Bouncing $29 Check? No Justice for the 99%

Judge in Arkansas insists his city doesn't run a debtors' prison. But it sure looks like one.

Photo Credit: ozguroral / Shutterstock

Nikki Petree was released last Thursday after spending 35 days in county jail for bouncing a $28.93 check five years ago. Judge Milas Hale, who is accused of running a modern-day debtors' prison in Sherwood, Ark., sentenced the woman to jail; the Huffington Post reports Petree has been arrested seven times in connection with that charge and has already paid the city at least $640. She told the Post she still owes the city $1,300.

"Every time [I’d] go to jail, they’d let me out immediately for $100,” Petree said in an interview. “They’d turn around and add $600 or $700 more to my bond. I couldn’t afford to pay. They cornered me, and there was no way out from underneath it. I felt overwhelmed and hopeless."

Petree said prior to her sentencing, Judge Hale asked Petree how much money she could pay today.

“I started to explain to him I’ve been in and out of the hospital two or three times in the past year,” Petree said. “I offered community service, I offered weekends in jail, but before I could even get those two sentences out of my mouth, he sentenced me to 90 days in county jail, and he didn’t want to hear nothing from me.”

Petree is one of the plaintiffs in a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed by the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. It targets Sherwood’s "hot check division," which issues over 35,000 warrants per year for bad checks.

In 2009, Lee Robertson—another plaintiff in the civil rights lawsuit—wrote a series of bad checks totaling about $200 while undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. He was arrested seven times over the next six years before Judge Hale sentenced him to 90 days in jail for owing the court $3,054.51.

The suit cites Robertson and Petree’s cases, claiming the Sherwood Police Department acts as a collection agency for the court and creates "a system of debtors’ prisons to fuel the demand for increased public revenue from the pockets of their poorest and most vulnerable citizens.”

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the broken court system "disregards due process rights at every turn."

“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," she added.

Hale denies the lawsuit's claims, telling KATV, “we do not run a so called 'debtor's prison' in Sherwood.”

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Elizabeth Preza is the Managing Editor of AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @lizacisms.