Civil rights groups accuse Arkansas city of running 'debtors prison'

August 23, 2016 2:21 PM EDT

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By Jon Herskovitz

(Reuters) - Civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday accusing a small Arkansas city of running what they said amounted to a modern day debtors prison where a local court imposed inordinate fees on the poor and jailed them if they did not pay.

The groups, including the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the American Civil Liberties Union, said the city of Sherwood, with a population of about 30,000 people, generated some $12 million over the past five years through the system, which the lawsuit claimed is illegal and targets African-American residents.

A lawyer for the city and a municipal court judge, named as a defendant, did not respond to requests for comment.

The ACLU said what is going on in Sherwood, a suburb of Little Rock, is being repeated by numerous localities across the country who impose what the group sees as unlawful court fees to fill municipal coffers.

In Sherwood, there is a "hot check" court where local officials can leverage a check with insufficient funds written for $15 into several thousand of dollars in court fees and fines enforced with jail for those who do not pay, the lawsuit said.

"These costs are often borne by the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens in the community ... who find themselves in a never-ending cycle of court proceedings they do not understand, arrests they cannot avoid (and) payments they cannot afford," the lawsuit said.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit filed in federal court in Arkansas wrote a check for $28.93 in 2011 that was returned for insufficient funds. The woman was arrested seven times as a result of the returned check and is currently in a county jail for failure to pay $2,656.93 in court costs.

The lawsuit claims these practices violate U.S. civil rights law and the Constitution.

The Sherwood District Court said on its website its hot check division issues over 35,000 warrants a year related to bad checks and can "boast an 85 percent collection rate for all cases handled."

Last March, the U.S. Justice Department said it would issue federal guidelines for municipalities on the issue after finding the city of Ferguson, Missouri - the St. Louis suburb convulsed in 2014 by a white policeman's fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen - made widespread use of the practice.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Alan Crosby)

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