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Arkansas pays this judge $147,000 a year to lock tens of thousands of people up for being poor

James Clarke

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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. 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.

White County and its neighboring communities within Derrick’s purview have a slightly lower poverty rate than the national average.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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