Arkansas judge throws defendants ‘too poor to pay’ in ‘debtors’ prison,’ lawsuit says

Arkansas District Judge Mark Derrick
Arkansas District Judge Mark Derrick

Kimberly Snodgrass has spent a third of her time in the White County Detention Center since September 2014.

That’s not because she keeps committing new crimes, but because she can’t afford to pay her compounding Arkansas District Court fines for nonpayment of the fines she already owes, according to a lawsuit.

Judge Mark Derrick has convicted Snodgrass of failure to pay 10 times in the last four years, the lawsuit says, “each time incurring another $450 to $670 in additional debt, and 30 days’ jail time in most cases.”

It’s a debt spiral she can’t climb out of, her lawyers say, and the five other plaintiffs in the case against Derrick say their financial situations are also circling the drain thanks to unfair fine structures after cases tried in Derrick’s courtroom in the town of Searcy, which sits about 60 miles west of Memphis along U.S. 167.

They say they’re trapped in the modern version of an institution that was outlawed in the U.S. in 1833.

“The practices described in the complaint have created a modern-day debtors’ prison in White County,” Edward Boyle, co-counsel for the defendants, said in a news release. “We aim to put an end to these illegal practices.”

The Supreme Court reaffirmed in 1983 that throwing indigent debtors in jail is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Amendment. The lawsuit was filed in neighboring Pulaski County by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Derrick told the Searcy Daily Citizen last month that people who do not pay their fines “have no discipline, self-confidence or self-esteem.”

But the plaintiffs say that’s not the case. They say they find themselves under Derrick’s thumb when additional nonpayment fines are piled on top of already existing ones, after the defendant has already shown an inability to pay.

Snodgrass and her ex-husband Mark, one of the co-plaintiffs, are each under court orders to pay hundreds each month to White County. When they miss payments, warrants are issued for their arrest. They’ve each been sentenced to multiple 30-day jail sentences, which must be served consecutively.

The other plaintiffs have similar stories. Jobs are lost while defendants serve their 30-day sentences, threatening their abilities to pay court fees, which then results in another nonpayment conviction, according to the lawsuit. Meanwhile, Derrick told the Daily Citizen during his campaign for re-election in 2016 that he favors a more lenient sentence for those convicted of other Class A misdemeanors: 15-day sentences that he allows inmates to serve on weekends, “to make an impression on them, so they learn.”

But when it comes to nonpayment of fines, he takes a different stance.

“I know my fines are a lot higher,” he told the newspaper in 2016. “I have people in my court that owe thousands and thousands of dollars because they keep getting in trouble. Some people may owe $12,0000, $15,000 or $20,000. I have a policy: Stay out of trouble for four years. That’s a long time. Make your monthly payments.”

For someone like Snodgrass, who works in a kitchen, or Dazarious Braggs, a co-plaintiff who works at a tire shop in Searcy, those sums become insurmountable, their lawyers argue.

“This is analogous to the pattern we’ve seen in other places where we’re also fighting modern day debtors’ prisons, where jurisdictions rely on and count on a growing sum of money to come from fines and fees extracted off the backs of poor people,” Kristen Clarke, president and chief executive officer of the Lawyers’ Committee, told The Associated Press.

Peter Taneyhill in 2016 racked up more than $150,000 in costs for county jail and behavioral health services but with the help of the Hon. Lawrence Brown and his re-entry court program the 53-year-old has cleaned up and is paying his debts.