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Cancer patient thrown in jail for being too sick to pay debts

Medical debt

(NaturalNews) A division of the municipal court in Sherwood, Arkansas, has been accused of using the judicial system to fund city expenses by arresting people for writing bad checks, and in some cases, for very small amounts.

Included among those arrested is cancer patient Lee Robertson, 44, who was incarcerated for writing several bad checks in a variety of low amounts ranging from $5 to $41, according to the Huffington Post.

Robertson was unable to earn a living after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and forced to undergo chemotherapy treatments. He resorted to writing bad checks to a few stores in his neighborhood in order to buy commodities.

His debt initially reached about $200. However, after being arrested seven times over a period of six years, the amount ballooned to more than $3,000 in court fees and restitution, owed to the Sherwood District Court in Arkansas.

Cancer patient sentenced to jail for writing bad checks is now a plaintiff in a class action civil rights lawsuit

Because Robertson was unable to pay the mounting debt, Judge Milas "Butch" Hale sentenced the cancer patient to 90 days in jail.

The man is now one of the plaintiffs in a class action federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, according to reports.

"The suit aims to take on what has been described as a 'modern-day debtors' prison' in the city of Sherwood. Similar practices exist in courts around the country, including in several cities in St. Louis County, which received attention for their debt collection practices following the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago.

"Groups like Equal Justice Under Law, ArchCity Defenders, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the American Civil Liberties Union have been mounting challenges to unconstitutional court practices in many parts of the nation."

A component of the Sherwood municipal court called the "Hot Check Division" is being scrutinized; the lawsuit alleges that the city is marketing the division to the business community in Pulaski County.

Court's 'Hot Check Division' is funding city expenses

"Sherwood lists the division as a 'department' on its website, and calls the court's work a 'service' for merchants — one that issues 'over 35,000 warrants annually' on charges in connection with bad checks. The court collected nearly $12 million in five years."

The lawsuit states that Sherwood's "lucrative" system hardly resembles that of a real court or judicial process. Family and friends wishing to support defendants during hearings are often told the court is closed.

Some defendants said they were forced to sign a "waiver of counsel" form in order to enter the courtroom, forfeiting their right to an attorney.

The Sherwood Police Department has been accused of acting as an "extension" of the municipal court's "collections scheme," jailing hundreds of people due to "failure to pay" court fees or "failure to appear" charges.

A broken court system

Fees accrued from these procedures have generated almost 12 percent of Sherwood's city budget, according to the Huffington Post. "Each overdrawn check, no matter how small, can bring in $400 in fines and fees, plus restitution for the amount of the check."

"This is a broken court system that disregards due process rights at every turn," said Kristen Clarke with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

"People are doomed for failure when they appear before the court, and most significantly trapped in this never-ending cycle of expanding debt," she said.

"With the resurgence of debtors' prisons, we will continue to see people cycle in and our of jails and prisons across our country merely because of their inability to pay fines and fees tied to low-level, nonviolent offenses."

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs say that the facts they've uncovered are worse than they imagined. Instead of generating money through tax increases, Sherwood is using the court system to "fuel the demand for increased public revenue" by targeting the "poorest and more vulnerable citizens."





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