Don’t Pay Your Rent? Go to Jail in Arkansas

Arkansas is the only state where landlords can file criminal charges rather than civil complaints against tenants for falling behind on rent. Gee, whata surprise! As picked up from Crooks and Liars and originally reported by ProPublica – When Falling Behind on Rent Leads to Jail Time, ProPublica.

An Arkansas prosecutor has been fired after speaking out against a 119 year old law jailing people who are behind on rent and mostly impacting female, Black, and low-income renters. Garland County deputy prosecutor Josh Drake was let go from his position on Oct. 31 by Michelle Lawrence, the prosecuting attorney.

Josh Drake told ProPublica:

I hate that law. It’s unconstitutional. It constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, echoing other Arkansas legal experts and advocates across the political spectrum.

Under the law, which dates to 1901, if a tenant’s rent is a day overdue, they forfeit their right to be in the property. If they don’t leave their homes within 10 days of getting a notice from their landlords, they can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined for each day they overstay.

Evictions in the state can snowball from charges to warrants to arrests to jail time, leaving people with criminal records that hinder their ability to find a new home or get a job. In civil evictions, by contrast, landlords can pursue unpaid rent and other additional fees from tenants, but the process doesn’t include daily fines for staying in the property without paying or put tenants at risk of jail time.

ProPublica found that since 2018, more than 1,000 cases have been filed under the criminal eviction statute. During that time, judges have sentenced at least 37 renters to jail after charges stemming from the law, which is officially known as “failure to pay rent, failure to vacate.” Women and people of color have disproportionately been charged.

And yes, not even the pandemic (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s) national moratorium on evictions can stop Arkansas courts from jailing people.  Approximately 49 people have been charged, with more than two dozen cases filed since September 4. And landlords?  Landlords preferred the criminal statute to civil evictions because the criminal process is cheaper. In criminal cases, taxpayers shoulder the cost when county attorneys pursue tenants in Arkansas while in in civil eviction hearings, the landlords have to cover their attorney fees.