By Alan Pike of ThingProgress.org
The dirt-poor residents of a hardscrabble Arkansas county are routinely sent to jail for being broke by a judge who earns $147,000 a year.
District Judge Mark Derrick routinely violates core principles of the Constitution and sometimes even flouts black-letter laws of the state itself, a lawsuit filed Thursday by the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law says.
Derrick’s practices help keep the White County Detention Center filled to bursting. Although the Constitution forbids the jailing of people simply for being too poor to pay fines, and laws therefore require judges to ascertain a person’s realistic ability to repay court debts before establishing fine levels and repayment schedules, thousands of people unlucky enough to get a traffic ticket or other minor violation in Derrick’s 23rd Judicial District have been repeatedly tossed into cells for missing payments scheduled without any regard for their income, the suit says.
For every three days Kimberly Snodgrass has been alive in the past four years, she’s spent one in the White County jail thanks to Derrick’s practices. Snodgrass is one of six named plaintiffs in the suit, but lawyers are bringing it as a class action on behalf of what they say are more than 20,000 similarly afflicted locals.
Derrick convicted Snodgrass of 10 separate “failure to pay” charges since September 2014, each time ordering her jailed for 30 days and adding between $450 and $670 in new fines to her account. She’s lost two jobs and been evicted from four different houses as a result, the suit says — all without Derrick ever even inquiring as to how much money she has, how much she expected to earn, or what kind of monthly payments she could actually afford to make.
Derrick, whose only previous brush with internet headlines came when he was bitten by his father’s pet zebra in 2015, automatically imposes such one-month incarceration terms pursuant to his personal “zero tolerance” policy. The 30-day sentences his ironclad policy on non-payment mandates are twice the sentence incurred by the most serious category of crimes his court is empowered to adjudicate, Arkansas’ “Class A” misdemeanors. That means he’s treating poverty as twice the sin of the most serious statutory crimes under his purview, the suit notes.
Even more egregiously, he campaigned on a promise to let Class A misdemeanor convicts serve their 15-day terms on weekends only so as to minimize the disruption of their lives — all while forcing the 30-day sentences for brokeness to be served continuously, all but ensuring that one of his judicial victims who has managed to secure the work they need to begin paying the fines he ordered will lose that job.
“I know my fines are a lot higher [than other judges],” Derrick told the local Searcy Daily Citizen during his last campaign in 2016. “I have a policy: Stay out of trouble for four years…Make your monthly payments…If they can do that for four years, they can do it for the rest of their lives.”
“I try to hammer them at the front end and make them want to change, then I give them incentive,” Derrick told the paper. Attempts to reach the judge by phone Thursday about his practices were unsuccessful.
White County and its neighboring communities within Derrick’s purview have a slightly lower poverty rate than the national average. But their residents are almost all struggling to get by. White County’s per-capita income is just $32,966 in the latest available data, up from less than $21,000 at the nadir of the Great Recession.
While Derrick was tossing Kimberly Snodgrass in jail over and over again, and burying her ex-husband Christopher in more than $5,000 in debts stemming from traffic citations, a trespassing conviction “for showing his daughter the railroad bridge he played under as a boy,” and convictions stemming from his missed payments to Derrick’s court, the state of Arkansas was making him one of the best-paid individuals in the region he rules. District Judge pay jumped from $125,495 in 2015 — merely three times the White County median earnings, plus benefits — to $142,800 in 2017. After another pay hike earlier this year, Derrick is making over $147,000 a year in salary alone — almost five times the per-capita figure for the county.
Derrick’s court practices don’t just make a mockery of the founding documents’ prohibitions on criminalizing poverty, and of the Arkansas misdemeanor statutes. He’s also, on at least one occasion, continued to jail poor people under state laws that were already deemed unconstitutional for similar reasons a year earlier.
Though the allegations laid out in the lawsuit filed Thursday could easily make Mark Derrick the newest good-ol’-posterboy for modern-day debtors’ prisons, White County is far from the only place where working-poor families live under the thumb of a judiciary bent on turning seatbelt violations and speeding tickets into life-ruining indentured servitude. Low-level local courts systems like the one Derrick helps operate in Arkansas are venues for a state war on poor people all across the country.
St. Louis County’s version of these practices drew national scrutiny after reporters descended on the area following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014. Federal judges struck down New Orleans’ bail system on similar grounds earlier this week. Corinth, Mississippi struck a deal to resolve a Southern Poverty Law Center suit on similar grounds in April. From Grand Rapids, Michigan to Augusta, Georgia to Benton County, Washington, people have been routinely dumped into jail cells for failing to pay fines not by choice but by sheer mathematical inability.
Some of Derrick’s victims have lost more than just their time, their jobs, their mental health, and their freedom to his senseless mode of operating the state’s lowest level of court. Thirty-two-year-old Nikita Mahoney lost her kids to Derrick’s “zero tolerance” approach to poverty. The state took away custody of her four youngsters after one of the multiple debtor’s prison terms Derrick sentenced her to overlapped with her husband’s own jail stay, also on a contempt charge tied to a court debt.
“I kept telling the court that I have babies to take care of at home, and they kept telling me I can’t use my kids as an excuse,” Mahoney, a certified nursing assistant who works two jobs, said. “My kids are not an excuse.”