Image of William Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’ 

Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016

Debtors’ prisons in the United States were outlawed at the federal level in the mid-1800s. A string a Supreme Court cases in the 20th century further outlawed practices associated with such prisons; however, it left some power in the hands of individual judges as to determine who was indigent (to poor to pay) and who was willfully refusing to pay a debt.

That is a mighty power to have, and one that has led to allegations that some courts are running de facto debtors’ prison—such as the case in Sherwood District Court in Arkansas. The Arkansas Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have filed a lawsuit alleging the court’s “Hot Checks Division” is infringing on citizens’ civil liberties and sending people to prison for unpaid debts.

In Sherwood, the “Hot Checks Division” was billed as a service for the merchant community and to “maintain a business-friendly environment here in Sherwood.”  That sounds similar to Lenawee County’s Economic Crimes Unit, which was designed to “give merchants another option in recovering economic losses” and “help businesses improve their bottom line.”

Even Lenawee County Prosecutor Burke Castleberry, whose office the ECU operates through, said in an interview with The Daily Telegram, “I think this is going to make business development positive in Lenawee County.”

The allegations in Sherwood are disturbing—a few bad checks ballooning into thousands of dollars of court fines and fees with many ending up in jail for their inability to pay. “Over 35,000 warrants annually” are issued and over five years the court collected $12 million. You can read the story here.

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Lenawee County’s ECU was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when Cathy and Melvin Duren made national news for two unreturned books to the Lenawee District Library. What caught the attention of many was that after returning one of the two books, paying the fines and paying for a replacement book, they were still facing criminal charges for refusing to enter a diversion program through the ECU. The charges carried up to 93 days in jail for failure to pay the $210 fee ($105 each). Luckily, lawyers represented the Durens, and the charges were magically dismissed.

But not everyone has money for a lawyer, granted the Durens were represented pro bono. Not everyone who faces the judicial system has such luxury or luck. It makes one wonder how easily would the county buckle if everyone facing charges through the ECU retained legal representation. It man be costly for the defendants, but a smart decision nonetheless.

The goal of the ECU is not to resolve small financial matters outside the court system—favoring the best interests of the local businesses and county residents. According to Castleberry, he said “his goal is for the program to eventually generate enough revenue from fees paid by program participants to make it self-supporting,” according to The Daily Telegram.

That is a dangerous goal that seems hardly in the best interests of the parties involved, especially those on the business end of the ECU. What would the mentality be if the court system operated with the goal of generating enough revenue to operate? Or the police? Instead of justice being the driving force, would desires change to something nefarious?

Right now, the ECU is chugging along with only modest intrusions into the citizens’ everyday lives. However, considering the Lenawee County government is coming up a few dimes short for its proposed new sheriff’s department building and other expenses, we have to guard against the actions of Sherwood making their way into Lenawee County. Granted, the unit already operates with the goal of generating revenue—so maybe it’s not too distant.

 

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