Columns » Max Brantley

Proctor’s gulag

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The controversy over Circuit Judge Willard Proctor of Little Rock, reported in detail in these pages originally by Mara Leveritt, has grown. The  state judicial discipline agency has released a burgeoning list of alleged ethical violations by the judge.

Proctor — who deserves a reputation as a smart, capable and even amiable jurist — has a dark side. According to the report — and my own sources — Proctor can be abusive to staff. He's continued to practice law on the side and he's reportedly helped run a catfish restaurant from the bench. He's prayed for the death and damnation of critics.

The real problem is the Cycle Breakers probation program, according to the state agency's report. Where most judges use the state probation system, Proctor created a private nonprofit to handle probationers. The judge controls the people who run it and how the agency's money is spent. He has ordered blank checks from Cycle Breakers for his use. The conflict is obvious since all the money comes from fees assessed by Proctor on people who appear in his court.

His lack of proper accounting was already evident in a scathing state audit, but the judicial investigation has taken it deeper. Cycle Breaker takes in $10,000 a month, maybe much more, and provides only the most perfunctory accounting. At least $34,000 has been spent on Proctor's own expenses, including lawn care. Tens of thousands in expenses are unsupported by specific documentation.

Misspending still isn't the worst of it. The worst is a breathtaking abrogation of the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. The judge is a believer in rehabilitation. This would not be a bad thing, if it wasn't so mercenary. More probationers mean more fees on them for Proctor's Cycle Breakers, an organization he reportedly wants to expand to other jurisdictions. When probation has been completed, Proctor dismisses charges and expunges probationers' records. At that point, these people should be free men and women, with clean records. But Proctor has invented something he calls “civil probation.” It is not authorized by law. In proceedings unattended by a court reporter, defense lawyer or prosecutor, Proctor reportedly orders defendants to continue under Cycle Breakers' supervision. If they break rules, they must pay fines. If they don't pay fines, Proctor sends them to a jail already inadequate to hold real criminals.

Proctor's need for money is great because of an ill-advised real estate purchase by Cycle Breakers near a Little Rock elementary school. His plans to use it as a probation facility were upended by parents who didn't want sex offenders close by. Proctor is on tape making threatening remarks to mothers who opposed him. The mortgage remains.

Once again, the key allegation: Proctor sends people to jail if they don't pay court-ordered, statutorily unauthorized fees to an organization he controls. Call it Proctor's gulag. Call it debtor's prison. Call it enslavement. Just don't call it justice.

Proctor's unhealthy relationship with probationers is also manifest in the allegations. He threatens some. Others get special counseling and mentoring. One defendant reported being a guest in Proctor's home for three weeks while on probation. It's wildly inappropriate.

Proctor is attempting to quash this investigation in a case that has been under seal before the state Supreme Court. That file likely contains still more shocking details. The file should be opened. Proctor should stop handling criminal cases until his investigation is completed. Unless dozens of witnesses are proved liars, he should leave the bench. The Supreme Court must harness this rogue judge.

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