Debtor’s prisons are an antiquity which were used centuries ago, but have since been phased out of modern life. However, there is a judge in Arkansas who has taken it upon himself to bring this humiliating form of punishment back to public life.
Sherwood District Court Judge Milas Hale is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union because Hale sentenced Lee Robertson to 90 days in jail due to owing the court $3,054. The large fine was caused by a bounced check Lee had written earlier, and the fees which have accrued over time. Lee has suffered from cancer of the pancreas for over 6 years which severely hinders his ability to hold down a job, or to earn money.
Hale’s courtroom is bizarre and likely unconstitutional as he requires defendants to sign away their right to an attorney before they enter his courtroom. Furthermore, Hale does not allow family members of defendants to be present during proceedings, nor does he allow cameras or any written record of testimony. Hale denies any wrongdoing and states he is not breaking the law. In the judge’s own words, “We do not run a so-called ‘debtor’s prison’ in Sherwood. If a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty, of writing a hot check we set up a payment plan. It is only after the third or fourth time that they fail to comply with a court order that we incarcerate.”
When individuals are incarcerated, they often have to pay a daily fee for being in custody. Along with extra court costs for their various appearances, to say nothing of a lawyer to help them get out of the legal quagmire with which they find themselves. Hale’s policy having individuals placed in custody for being unable to pay their fees to the court defeats the purpose. It makes little sense to put a person in prison if they have a debt they cannot pay, as if they are incarcerated how will they earn money to pay their debt?