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Arkansas inmates get $2.5M in repayments; court ruling forces agency to return some relief funds

Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette, June 6, 2022. https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/jun/06/stat...

More than $2 million has been returned over the past couple of months to inmates currently housed by the Arkansas Department of Corrections after a court ruling that the agency had to return any federal relief or stimulus funds that weren't being used to pay prisoners' fines or fees.

Cindy Murphy, communications director for the Department of Corrections, said $2,551,198 in confiscated federal relief or stimulus funds has been returned to inmates after U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky ruled the agency had 90 days to return funds that were not being used to pay off court fines, fees, costs or restitution. Additionally, she said, the agency has returned $283,513 to parolees.

"The DOC still has a few outstanding checks due to absconded offenders, or offenders with inaccurate addresses filed," Murphy said in an email. "If the checks are not claimed by September, they will be forwarded to the Arkansas Treasure Hunt."

Rudofsky issued an injunction March 16 that applied to all prisoners to whom Act 1110 of 2021 applied, applies or could apply. The act requires a person in the custody of a correctional facility to use funds from federal relief or stimulus programs to pay outstanding fines, fees, costs or restitution.

Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in 2020 and sent out $1,200 payments to every American adult with an income of less than $75,000. The federal government passed two more stimulus bills later that included $600 and $1,400 payments.

Prisoners were among the eligible individuals entitled to receive all three stimulus payments.

The Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 1110 directing Department of Correction officials to withhold stimulus checks received by prisoners and use those funds to pay fees and to distribute any leftover funds evenly to the "inmate welfare fund" and the Division of Correction Inmate Care and Custody Fund Account, according to a Prison Legal News article.

"We were holding the money in a fiduciary account," Murphy told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Anthony Lamar, who was in custody at the Varner Unit, filed a lawsuit against the state in 2021 challenging the legality of the act after his stimulus payments were taken.

Lamar claimed that $1,395 of his $1,400 stimulus check was unlawfully taken because the act conflicted with federal law, according to court documents. He said taking his stimulus money violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The court granted Lamar relief after a hearing on his preliminary injunction and analyzed his claim.

The court did not find any violation regarding the confiscation of the funds for the purpose of paying off court fines, fees, costs or restitution. However, it ruled that diverting excess funds to the inmate welfare fund and the Inmate Care and Custody Account was a violation.

The court ordered the Department of Corrections to place any federal relief and stimulus funds in a sequestered account if it continued to confiscate those funds. It also required the agency to maintain records of how much money is confiscated from each prisoner and what amount is paid toward fees.

"He further ruled that for any future confiscations of federal relief or stimulus funds, if the DOC is made aware of existing court fines, fees, costs or restitution owed by an inmate, their funds may be sent to the county where the money is owed," Murphy said. "If, after 90 days, the DOC has not been made aware of any outstanding money owed, the money will be released to the inmate."

Murphy said the Department of Corrections had a balance of $2,834,711 when the ruling was issued. Since then, she said, it has returned $2,551,198 of that to inmates currently housed by the Department of Corrections.

"Since the ruling, the DOC has collected an additional $579,173 and disbursed $97,339 in fees, fines and restitution," Murphy said. "The Department currently has a balance of $481,834 available to be claimed."

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