Hot Check Court Another Debtors’ Prison for the Poor

Sherwood's Hot Check Court Arktimes

Sherwood’s Hot Check Court

Little Rock   My brother-in-law and I agree on a million things, but those are family things, construction projects, upkeep of my trailers, automotive advice, and fixing anything and everything, but we do our best to NOT talk about politics, because he’s what you might call a Huckabee-man in Arkansas terms, and I’m anything but. We know where each other stands, so we know how to walk around most of the rocks in the road. This morning at dawn before I pulled out he said, “You got to see this!” He was following the news on Facebook, so I went over and looked over his shoulder where he was pointing. “Do you know about the “hot check” court? They’re running a debtors’ prison over in Sherwood.” I was all no, yes, and out the door. What the heck was a “hot check” court?

He was on to something though. Out of curiosity, I googled hot check court in Sherwood, which is a suburban enclave in Pulaski County across the Arkansas River and up the road from Little Rock. What you find with Google’s help is that, yes indeed, the City of Sherwood actually has a “Hot Check Division” of the Sherwood District Court of Pulaski County. How could it be that this little town has enough hot checks to have its own division? Are people driving from all over the county, the state, and the South in order to try and pass hot checks? The answer is, yes, sort of.

What had caught my brother-in-law’s eye was that the ACLU and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law had joined to file a suit for several defendants over the practices of this hot check division arguing that they were effectively running a court as a money printing machine exploiting low income defendants by larding on fines, court costs, and penalties connected with the original offense to milk the defendant and when they couldn’t bleed them dry, they were jailing them to keep the system going. The lawyers weren’t shy about referencing how similar this Arkansas mess was to Ferguson, Missouri where this was a system on steroids. They were also quick to mention that the Justice Department had jumped in and sued several venues around the country for using minor infractions as cash machines for their towns and cities.

In a report by the Associated Press one plaintiff is a good example of this system:

The plaintiffs in the case include Nikki Petree, a 40-year-old Arkansas woman who has been in jail for more than 25 days because she was unable to pay more than $2,600 in court costs, fines and fees related to a bounced check she wrote in 2011 for $28.93. According to the lawsuit, Petree initially faced $700 in court fines, fees and restitution, but the amount ballooned over the years due to related failure to appear and failure to pay charges.

The City of Sherwood of course denies everything. Their claims though seem hollow. They argue that it is only after the third or fourth hot check that they jail someone, and that they offer payment plans to resolve the earlier problems. I’m sure no one has every bounced a check, which is what a hot check is, essentially an NSF or non-sufficient funds matter, but these days if you are on not on top of your balances or a deposit goes bad, you could bounce a half-dozen checks in one sitting, bing, bam, boom! And, the City is in cahoots with the County, because Pulaski County has been sending over hot checks for more than 40 years to Sherwood to crank this ATM for them.

The AP reports that this adds up to a pretty penny.

The groups say Sherwood relies on the hot check fines and fees as a significant revenue source for its operations. The city’s receipts from district court fines and forfeitures were estimated to be at least $2.3 million in the 2015 fiscal year, Sherwood’s third-highest revenue source after city and county sales taxes, the lawsuit said.

Before you start South-bashing and pretending that this is just something you find in the backwoods or in broke-ass states like Arkansas, the lawyers are clear this situation exists in a lot of counties around the state for sure, but all of us know that this is common increasingly all over the South and the country, and certainly not confined to Missouri, Arkansas, North Carolina, and other places that have been in the news for creating modern day debtors’ prisons on the backs of the poor in order to avoid fair taxation and harder political choices.


What Happened to Community Economic Development Strategy?

Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, MS January 31, 1966.

Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, MS January 31, 1966.

Greenville, Mississippi    Driving between New Orleans and Little Rock on my monthly route to oversee the 100,000 watt KABF in Little Rock and our union operations in Arkansas, you hopscotch from Vicksburg, Mississippi on Interstate 20 to Tallulah, Louisiana in one of the poorest parishes in that state, and go north on highway 65 through Sondheimer and Transylvania until you cross into Arkansas and Eudora. When you come to the dead end at the lake, you can either go left to Lake Village and on up to Little Rock or go right for sixteen miles and cross a modern newish bridge over the Mississippi and land in the delta town of Greenville. I had heard there was a small radio station facing some challenges in Greenville and though I had been missing a connection, it was only a half-hour out of my way to do some cold doorknocking and see if there was any way I could lend a hand.

I was interested in more than WDSV 91.9 FM and 1500 watts of power. In trying to track down the folks at WDSV, I had hit the web to see if MACE, Mississippi Action for Community Education, was still alive and well. It turned out that in fact the old “twin” organization, the Delta Foundation, was actually the license holder for WDSV. When ACORN was still a young organization in Arkansas and starting to expand, we would frequently cross paths with MACE and the Delta Foundation. Funders would ask how we were different and in some cases, suggest we should stop this community organizing stuff and just do economic development like Delta. Ed Brown, the founder of the Delta Foundation was from Baton Rouge, and was helpful when I was opening the ACORN office in New Orleans where he was living then before moving to Africa and later Atlanta. Charles Bannerman, his assistant from New York City, who ended up as the executive director of Delta was a legendary fundraiser and the darling of foundations, large and small, until his untimely death, and many ACORN leaders and organizers were Bannerman fellows over the years, which has become his legacy. Larry Farmer, the MACE community organizer, was my buddy and ally on the Youth Project board. I had been out of touch for decades, so it was worth a detour just to see what was up.

The Mississippi delta is one of the lowest income areas in the country and with its African-American majority the scene of civil rights struggles that in many ways haven’t ended yet. Economically, when you drive through Greenville, you see an abandoned housing project, for sale signs on empty warehouses, and downtown vacancies side by side with current commercial operations. When people talk about economic recovery, the conversation lingers over decades rather than just the last few years.

The Delta Foundation’s building was big and on Main Street. They had been in the small, select group of organizations that were the model for what community economic development might mean in the 70s. Two ladies saw me in the parking lot looking across the street at two radio stations. I was wondering if WDSV was over there, rather than here. They said, no, and showed me the side door where you entered the building. A woman operating a site where you could enroll in pre-TSA airport screening, helped me find the station and called up for folks to come visit with me. We then had a productive session that finally had to end after three hours so I could get on to Little Rock.

Visiting with them and with one of the original founders, Spencer Nash, who was on his way to retirement and had come back to Delta and Greenville from McComb where he had been a judge to run the organization. There had been some problems and a significant debt had to be retired, but in talking with him, it was clear the challenges were deeper than that for Delta. Their strategy had been to buy small manufacturing plants to create jobs in the Mississippi delta region. I asked him about a plant that I remembered they had bought in Memphis that made window fans. Long gone. Nash told me they had also recently sold their plant in Little Rock where they made retractable attic stairways. They had one small manufacturing operation still in the Greenville area. What happened? Nash said that competitors had moved to Mexico, and the Delta couldn’t compete on the labor costs. They provided loans and other small services now in addition to operating the radio station. In some ways their highly touted economic development strategy had been collateral damage swept up by the tidal wave of globalization that has exacerbated inequity by obliterating decently waged manufacturing jobs.

Seems like for this strategy to have continued to work, we would have needed a policy that “sheltered” job development projects like those owned by Delta from NAFTA and the backwash of globalization. We didn’t. And, we won’t, and it’s too late now. AM/FM, KABF, and WAMF, will help WDSV become a community force for our friends in the Delta, but there needs to be a broader and more effective strategy that works for today. Nash told me that my friends and comrades had now all passed away as well, but the problems remain and the banner has to be carried forward!


Please enjoy Dwight Yoakam’s Purple Rain. Thanks to KABF.


Obamacare is Delivering Some of the Goods in Poor States

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 10.37.59 AMNew Orleans   There are now some thirty states that have expanded eligibility for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. There are twenty states – and a lot of the Republican Congress — that are still dragging their wagons through the dirt, and, if researchers are right, putting their people under the ground as well.

Researchers connected with Harvard’s Public Health School conducted an important experiment. They surveyed people in Kentucky and Arkansas before Medicaid expansion in 2013, again after the first full year in 2014, and finally at the end of 2015 with another year under peoples’ belts. They used Texas as the so-called control state for comparison, since Texas refused to budge on the Obamacare Medicaid expansion for lower-income, working families. Bottom line: 5% more people in Arkansas and Kentucky, too very different states with different approaches on the expansion, felt that they were in “excellent” health compared to do-nothing-much Texas.

Reading about the researchers work on the Harvard Public Health website and its lead author, Dr. Benjamin Sommers, an assistant professor there, offered a good summary that goes deeper than 5%:

Sommers and colleagues surveyed approximately 9,000 low-income adults in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas from late 2013 to the end of 2015. The results showed that, between 2013 and 2015, the uninsured rate dropped from 42% to 14% in Arkansas and from 40% to 9% in Kentucky, compared with a much smaller change in Texas (39% to 32%). Expansion also was associated with significantly increased access to primary care, improved affordability of medications, reduced out-of-pocket spending, reduced likelihood of emergency department visits, and increased outpatient visits. Screening for diabetes, glucose testing among people with diabetes, and regular care for chronic conditions all increased significantly after expansion. Quality of care ratings improved significantly, as did the number of adults reporting excellent health.

Debate over? Of course not. Many will wonder, and wait, until larger studies, including the government’s own, provide more data on whether or not people really are healthier or just feel healthier.

Regardless, how people feel may not answer the medical questions fully, but could start to provide answers for the political questions. As we find every day, particularly in the Age of Trump, people vote on how they feel, not based on the facts of the matter. If everything were equal, politicians would see that the trend line of how people feel about their own health and Medicaid expansion is now improving annually. If it continues along these lines, politicians will start playing “duck and cover” which might mean more expansion in the twenty holdout states.

There’s a big “if” though. These same politicians would actually have to care about the poor families that are the beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion, and believe, regardless of the evidence, that they vote, and that some of these poor are their voters.

It might be easier to deliver better healthcare than to convince elected officials of the value of the poor and their votes.


Neighborhoods Matter a Lot in Determining the Future

Demolition of housing project in New Orleans

Demolition of housing project in New Orleans

New Orleans   A new study being prominently reported argues powerfully that the neighborhood where you live and are raised may have way more to say about determining your future than many families or policy makers or government officials may have been willing to admit. That’s scary for many considering the abandonment of much of urban policy and investment by the federal and other branches of government in recent, and likely coming years, unless there is a major, almost revolutionary shift. Implicit, but unstated, in the dry report melting economics and math together, is how important strong community organizations, like the ones build by ACORN in lower income neighborhoods, could have had the ability to dislodge the depressing path of the future.

Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, reported on this harder look at the numbers in The New York Times, reviewing a dissertation being completed by one of his students, Eric Chyn, that is finding that the impact of neighborhood, always understood to be powerful, is even more devastatingly so than earlier assumed. Previous studies have found that children relocated from more difficult environments at a young age outperformed their peers economically by a substantial amount. These studies looked at winners and losers of a lottery in a public housing project, comparing the winners, those who were given a housing voucher to move out, with the losers, who those who were trapped inside. Chyn found that the impact was understated, because everyone entering the lottery was motivated to win, so that the real difference was between those who wanted out, and those who were stuck there. He looked at a more random set of people moved in and out as public housing buildings were dismantled in Chicago and the figures jumped out like screaming demons in an everyday Halloween.

The lack of a serious national housing policy that allows families better odds of emerging in the future is ignored by the right with their pretense of personal responsibility and not pursued as a mission on the order of the search for the Holy Grail on the left. It’s not a two-handed problem, where on the one hand this, and the other hand that. Unless we dramatically improve living conditions – and – opportunity in low-and-moderate income neighborhoods and force economic and racial mobility in communities, health opportunities, educational offerings, and job prospects, then the only thing we seem to be doing is making careers for economics to calculate the level of our failure.

And, part of the equation has to be support, one way or another, of vibrant and aggressive community organizations, and developing the organizers who build them, so that the ways and means to carry on the fight and have people participate in the push will be in place, as well as the ability to hold government and institutions accountable for making the changes that can redirect dismal futures to ones with hope and promise.


Does Hillary Clinton Have a Real Plan for Income Inequality?

Victims of MFIs display their daily payment cards in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. The Reserve Bank of India has appointed a sub-committee to look at governance issues. Photo: The Hindu/C.V. Subrahmanyam

Victims of MFIs display their daily payment cards in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh.  Photo: The Hindu/C.V. Subrahmanyam

Halifax    It’s time to start getting serious now that reality is sinking in and giving us a better look at a possible political future. There’s woe and rage about wage stagnation, the few future prospects of family-supporting jobs, deindustrialization, and millions stuck in grinding poverty while others have been allowed stupendous riches, and while fingers are pointing wildly, if Hillary Clinton is going to be the standard bearer for hope on any of these fronts, does she have a plan? Do we have any hope?

President Obama floated an interesting notion of wage insurance that would provide a cushion for a couple of years by making up a large part of the difference between a former job at higher pay and a new job at whatever was available in order to allow workers a transition and the ability to try to stay on their feet. This is not a guaranteed annual income proposal, which is what we need, but a shot in the right direction, even though it has no current or likely chance of passage. So far Hillary Clinton has danced around the $15 per hour minimum wage fight, arguing that, yes, a raise is needed, but, geez, not that much. She has also concretely argued for an increase in the earned income tax credit, but once again, you have to actually have a low-wage job for EITC to give a worker and her family much of a break. Once again, this doesn’t alleviate poverty.

For all of Clinton’s talk about women and children both domestically and in her recent past as Secretary of State and via the Clinton Foundation, it is still hard for me to believe she has been uncoupled from President Bill Clinton’s bargains with the devils on “ending welfare as we know it” that has put a hammerlock around the necks of many of America’s poorest families, while opening the door on tax breaks that have created an entire new class of the mega-rich. Her constant drumbeating for micro-lending and microfinance in her career is also very disconcerting, since at best microfinance is a job-buying subsistence program, not a poverty reduction scheme. Increasing debt is a guarantee for most families of an accelerated poverty trap, not an escape hatch. The support of microfinance institutions is widely understood now as simply smoothing the path for new markets under the existing financial models, not narrowing the inequality gap.

Thomas Frank in a devastating critique writing in Harper’s recently labeled much of Clinton’s work both in and out of government in the poverty reduction fight as largely a “virtue quest” rather than a serious fight against inequality or a struggle to break ground with workable policy prescriptions. He correctly pulls down the false flag of microfinance, but also gets too close to comfort on what may be the real problem of Clinton’s coziness with elites which is an embrace of what Michael Lewis years ago called “access capitalism.” Access capitalism is a world of head-nodding approval from policy makers, celebrities, philanthropists, foundations, corporate heads, former government officials, and others, which secures the common consensus, through its special access to the cronyism that both provides the infrastructure and the launching pad for “professional liberals” and same-old-story-business-as-usual capitalism and its implicit acceptance of intractable poverty and dream shattering inequality.

If that’s where she has been living, what does it take for Bernie Sanders, young activists, and the progressive forces to push her towards real programs, both domestically and internationally, before the dumbing down of the campaign and the inevitable compromises of government pull us farther away from winning change?


ACORN in Delhi Offers Alternatives to the “Sleep Mafia”

WP_20151204_10_56_12_ProNew Orleans   It is not every day when the work of ACORN and its affiliates is written between the lines of major stories in The New York Times, but recently that was the case in a glaring, tragic story about the so-called “sleep mafia” in Delhi.

The story of privatized sleep follows a familiar pattern in this city: After decades of uncontrolled growth, the city government’s inability to provide services like health care, water, transportation and security has given rise to thriving private industries, efficient enough to fulfill the needs of those who can pay. But shelter, given Delhi’s extremes of heat and cold, is often a matter of survival. The police report collecting more than 3,000 unidentifiable bodies from the streets every year, typically men whose health broke down after years living outdoors. Winter presents especially brutal choices to homeless laborers, who have no place to protect blankets from thieves in the daytime hours. Some try to hide them in the tops of trees.

In this overview, that’s a statement of the problem and the city’s response is somewhat explained by an Indian Supreme Court decision.

A cluster of “pavement dweller” deaths prompted India’s Supreme Court to rule in 2010 that the country’s large cities must provide shelter for 0.1 percent of the population. This winter, Delhi expanded its shelter system to accommodate more than 18,000, but the number of homeless is vast — likely more than 100,000….

As always it’s more complicated than simply some poor people taking advantage of even poorer people, as sleep wallas rent blankets for 20 or 30 rupees a night to the homeless. Many of this number are migrant workers in from the vast, imperiled rural countryside of India, trying to find a way to make a living, rather than how many might read the story and equate the situation in a kneejerk fashion to homelessness in the US. It’s as bad, but it is also somewhat different.

Furthermore there is worse story of Delhi’s efforts to privatize the problem of shelter. ACORN for several years was one of a number of nonprofits that ran several sleeping shelters for migrant workers in various districts of the city, including a large facility in a Delhi Municipal Corporation building in Old Delhi. In 2015 most of the nonprofits, including ACORN’s affiliates were pushed out when the city tried to outsource the problem in a bidding scheme that divided the city into huge regions allowing larger private enterprises to capitalize on the process and squeeze experienced nonprofits out of more effective support for the workers. After the failure of that system the city now has had to revert in many cases back to better operators. Recently I heard from Dharmendra Kumar, ACORN’s director in Delhi, that we had been awarded several new contracts and had a number of the ones we had lost in 2015 returned to us.

What do we do? As Dharmendra reports:

Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counselling and sanitary napkins. Free tuitions are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-deaddiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and have created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from christmas to New year.

When I shared the Times article with Dharmendra he also sent along a picture of a “rescue” vehicle that we are using that combs the streets of Delhi between 10 PM and 4 AM in the morning locating homeless who are sleeping rough and bring them to the nearest shelter.

None of this is enough, but bringing organizations and advocates back into the picture this year restores a voice for the poor and dispossessed that offers hope for expansion of services rather than the ill-fated mega-privatization schemes.

More needs to be done, but organizations like ACORN and its affiliates are leading the way in pushing for a solution and offering help and support in the meantime.


Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counseling and sanitary napkins. Free tuition are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on Sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-addiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and has created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from Christmas to New Year.

Poster of film festival Local Legislator playing santa and distributing gifts to homeless kids on christmas Homeless Kids with their Christmas gifts Homeless kids enjoying movie Fresh and hot food being served to homeless Feeding Homeless Kids Feeding Homeless Kid Creative corner by Homeless