The lady had just been released from jail. She had been incarcerated for "hot checks" the first week of December. She has 2 kids and a job at a fast food place here in town. I'm no criminal lawyer. But I know people in the prosecutor's office. And just like that other well known legal scholar Mick Jagger, I ain't too proud to beg. The prosecutor told me the Judge would let her out if she could come up with half of what she owed. 800 bucks. Which might have been 800,000 as far as this lady was concerned. And she had no relatives or other people here in town to pony up the "get out of jail card."
Mercifully, a local pastor agreed to pay the money. He went down there himself and got her out. God bless him. And 2 days later she met with me and the social worker. While I am not overly familiar with the internecine procedures of District Court, there was something about how all this went down that had me confused.
She sat on one end of the table in the Conference Room. I sat on the other. The LCSW sat between us.
"The reason we are meeting today," I said. "Is we want to figure out just how you got in this fix and what we have to do to keep you from going back to jail. You OK with this?"
"Yessir," she said. " I don't want to go back to that jail ever again."
"And we don't want you to go back."
"Tell me," I said. when did you first learn that you had been charged with writing hot checks?"
"When I was in traffic court here in Little Rock."
"I'm sorry. Traffic court in Little Rock. OK. Let's start there then."
"I got a ticket last Fall. Illegal lane change. That and I didn't have no insurance. So I had to go to the traffic court."
"And that Judge up there said that there was a warrant for me over in Sherwood and that they were sending somebody to Little Rock to pick me up."
"So that's when you first learned about the warrants."
"Yeah but I kinda knew about the hot checks before then really."
"I beg your pardon?"
"They took my state tax refund to pay on them checks about 2009 or so."
"2009? When did you write the checks?"
"I bounced 2 checks to Kroger about 2004. I ain't written any checks since then."
"Can they do that?" the LCSW asked.
"Sure they can," I replied. "I've seen the IRS do it a million times on delinquent Federal debts."
"Ma'am how do you know that's why the offset your refund?" I asked the lady.
"I don't know what that means," she replied. "What's offset?"
"I'm sorry. When they took your refund. How did you know the reason they did that?"
"I got a piece of paper that said it was for those checks. I didn't think no more about it. I thought it was taken care of then."
"OK. So they took you to Sherwood. What happened there?"
" They took my fingerprints and snapped a photo. And ROR'd me."
She actually said "ROR."
"They told me to go to Court in December. So I went to Court and that Judge told me I had to pay $1600.00 or he was gonna throw me in jail. I was by myself. I didn't have $1600. So they put me in jail."
OK. This was making sense now. For some she didn't show up on the hot check charge. Maybe she moved and didn't leave a forwarding address. Maybe she never read the letter advising her of the Court date. 2 little checks plus a fine for a FTA and the running of interest and court costs can turn into a 1600 buck problem pretty quickly. There wasn't much else the Judge could do. Not and be fair to others that had similar stories that he had to make guests of the County.
"You have any other criminal charges?" I asked.
"Just that theft of property in 2003," she said. "But I've applied to the Governor for clemency."
"OK," I said. " Let's talk about THAT."
This went on about another 20 minutes. I struck by the fact that this lady was pretty clueless about she had gotten to this juncture. They offset her tax refund. She thought it took care of the problem. That had the ring of truth. But she also knew the acronym for "Released on Recognizance." This indicated to me that she had a nodding acquaintance with the system.
Not that it matters. She goes back to Court in January. She will be put on a payment schedule. She will pay it or she will go to jail. If she goes to jail, her kids will get picked up and they will be put into foster care. That's what we told her.
And it also struck me that the jails are full of low level criminal types for whom the social problem drives the legal problem. Folks for whom 1600 bucks is a princely sum. Folks that live from "pillar to post" as the old folks used to say, stumbling from one calamity to the next. Most of us can scarcely imagine getting into such a fix. But then again, most of us are really lucky.
So far so good. Money got found. Her social worker is on top of the problem now. But the keys to the jail are in the lady's hands.
And if she doesn't understand that, she doesn't have ears to hear. And the jails are full of those types of those people too.