Hot Check Court Another Debtors’ Prison for the Poor

Sherwood's Hot Check Court Arktimes

Sherwood’s Hot Check Court arktimes.com

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.

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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!

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

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