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How Arkansas Criminalizes Poverty

Renters in Arkansas face the unique and unfortunate possibility of a misdemeanor charge for falling behind on rent. The one-of-a-kind law, which has been on the state’s books since 1901, allows landlords to evict tenants for being just a single day late on payments. Tenants have 10 days to clear out after receiving an eviction notice before it can be turned into a criminal matter.

Hunter was forced to miss two weeks of work in June 2020 after exposure to someone infected with the coronavirus. The resulting shortfall in her paycheck made it impossible to cover the full $850 of her rent for the month. She tried to come to an agreement with her landlord, but he chose to proceed with a criminal complaint.

When Hunter vacated the premises prior to the deadline on her eviction notice, she believed the matter was closed; thus, instead of being in court on September 8, she was asleep in a spare bedroom at her son’s house after pulling an all-night shift. The judge issued a warrant for her arrest and a bond for $1,000.

Hunter was unaware of what happened until ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power, informed her of the warrant near the end of September. She had already moved into a new place by then and was distraught by the difficulties the criminal charge was going to cause.

“I got to pay a fine for that, I got to get a bond out, it’s just so much,” Hunter said. “I moved out, so why am I going through all this? Why?”

Failure to appear at an eviction proceeding usually ends with a judgment in the landlord’s favor.

If the tenant still does not leave, law enforcement may be enlisted to remove the tenant’s property before changing the locks, but it remains a civil matter in every state except Arkansas.

Although an order by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shielded millions of renters from eviction nationwide until December 31, 2020, many others like Hunter did not benefit from its protection. The Arkansas statute has tended to target economically disadvantaged individuals as well as women in general – and especially women of color. In the initial six months of the pandemic, over 65% of those facing criminal eviction charges were women. No racial information was available for the statewide statistics, but to give some idea of the bias, Black women were the defendants in 62% of Little Rock’s criminal evictions in 2012.

“In disadvantaged neighborhoods, eviction is to women what incarceration is to men: incarceration locks men up, while eviction locks women out,” said Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, whose book Evicted won a Pulitzer Prize. He suggests that two factors working against women are that landlords prefer renters without children and that men bring in higher wages. In Arkansas, for example, Black women earn only 65¢ for each dollar made by White men. A criminal conviction stemming from eviction would further damage their earning potential.

“You do all the right things and still get hung up in a system that’s never built for you,” said Wilma Young, commenting on her own eviction ordeal that began with her being handcuffed on her doorstep in front of her young daughters.

Young’s October 1999 arrest was the result of allegations that she had not paid rent and then refused to vacate her apartment in a Little Rock suburb. Young, however, was current on her payments and had kept copies of the checks. After spending a night in jail, she found several neighbors had endured similar experiences – all of them Black and the majority women. Young, along with other women of color, sued the property managers of the apartment complex for their discriminatory practices. They settled with her out of court in 2001, thus managing to avoid media coverage or a legal challenge to the practice of criminal eviction.

While Young’s case was still being litigated, the state legislature took steps in March 2001 to strengthen the abusive statute. An amendment, signed into law that April, raised the fine on renters who overstayed to $25 a day and charged them with a Class B misdemeanor – which could mean a jail sentence as long as 90 days – for failing to pay back rent. 

The law was changed back to its pre-2001 form in 2017 after legal challenges mounted in state and federal courts. The reversal to a lesser misdemeanor charge was meant, in theory, to stop renters from being incarcerated solely because of an inability to pay. But in practice, it has failed. Arkansas’ criminal database has recorded at least 45 arrests due to eviction since 2018.

Civil evictions are pursued more often in the state, though landlords say taking that route costs them as much as $750 per case in lawyer fees. The criminal option, by contrast, pushes that expense onto taxpayers, who typically end up funding both the prosecuting and defense attorneys in such cases. Because a large number of Arkansas legislators are also landlords, they are unlikely to do away with the misdemeanor charge – at least until their constituents get tired of footing the bill for criminalizing poverty. 


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