On any given day, hundreds of Georgians are in jail for failing to pay child support.
Family law attorneys say many of these "deadbeats" are right where they belong. They have been found in willful contempt of court for repeatedly refusing to pay their child support, failing to try to find work or hiding their income and assets.
But many parents are being jailed even though they have no ability to pay, creating modern-day debtor's prisons, according to motions being filed in Georgia courts. The state should provide lawyers to indigent parents for their civil-contempt hearings to ensure due process, the filings say.
This is in keeping with the return of debtor's prisons for other areas of criminal justice such as not being able to pay probation fines or traffic tickets (see: TPE, 4/7/09).
Over the past decade, 3,612 people -- each serving an average of 127 days -- were incarcerated in Gwinnett County for failing to pay child support, according to jail records.
Last year, the Southern Center filed Open Records Act requests with county sheriffs to find out how many parents were jailed statewide for failing to pay court-ordered child support. The center, which heard back from 135 of the state's 159 counties, found that 526 parents were incarcerated statewide.
"The people we see in jail are not wealthy ‘deadbeat' dads," Geraghty said. "They are often working people who have lost jobs and become totally indigent."
Of course to the "family law lawyers" and "child advocates," indigent status is merely a ruse.
Doug Slade, an attorney who represents the state Office of Child Support Services and asked Miller be found in contempt, has said Miller is incarcerated for failing to comply with a court order.
"Our job is to seek to take care of the best interests of the child," he said. "It seems people are often more concerned about the parent who has the ability to work but is not and consequently is not taking care of the child."
Which I'm sure, in bureaucrat-ese means something, although I have no idea what. But the Supreme Court is getting ready to hear a case in March, from South Carolina, that has the potential to upend this 19th century style of imprisonment for child support debts.
On March 23, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case involving Michael Turner, who was jailed for a year after being found in contempt for not paying more than $5,700 in his child-support for his daughter. Turner told the judge he had been addicted to drugs, and he broke his back when he finally got a job. "Now I'm off the dope and everything," he said. "I just hope that you give me a chance. ... I know I done wrong."Don't you love South Carolina? I had no idea their state motto had become "Arbeit Macht Frei."
In its ruling last year, the South Carolina Supreme Court distinguished between civil contempt child-support jailings, whose purpose is to coerce compliance with court orders, and criminal contempt sanctions, which are punishment for disobedience and disrespect. A parent such as Turner "hold[s] the keys to his cell because he may end the imprisonment and purge himself of the sentence at any time by doing the act he had previously refused to do," the court said.
Regardless, many proponents of nailing "deadbeats" in jail think the Supreme Court is wrong to hear the case.
Seth Harp, who chairs the Georgia Child Support Guidelines Commission, said a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring lawyers for indigent parents "could devastate our system."
"We don't pay enough now for the defense of our criminals," said Harp, a former state legislator. "If there's no money for lawyers in child-support cases, then the possible result could be the end of the threat of jail time. And there are many people who deserve to go to jail."
There are no doubt some people who belong in jail for failure to support, and no one is a bigger advocate of parents (men) taking care of the children they bring into the world.
But most are being locked up because of being indigent (according to the Law Center's data). Which means, perversely, that these "child advocates" who favor throwing the indigent parents in the clink are denying the parents the right to work.
Not only does the current system cost the states in terms of welfare dependency for the child, but the additional costs to provide them with lawyers would be far and away cheaper than it is to incarcerate the "deadbeats."The family law industry, many of whom practice pseudo-psychology, is one of the larger scams going in the U.S.; in many ways it's become a system designed, not to protect "the best interest of the children," but to shakedown unhappy couples of their very last dollar and dime.*
Using our system of jails and prisons to further their enterprise (and bounce back from the recession, which has hammered divorce filings) is something the Supreme Court should put the kibosh on this spring.
* A friend of mine in family law suggested I mention that not everyone in the "industry" views it as a racket; many do a yeoman's work, often underpaid, for their participation in sorting out the mess people make of their lives and their children's lives. Fair enough. But let's keep the correctional-industrial complex out of it, shall we?