by E.J. Manning
It’s not advertised as a crime to be poor, but it can land you behind bars when you also are behind on your child-support payments. Thousands of so-called “deadbeat” parents are jailed each year in the United States after failing to pay court-ordered child support. It sounds like a bad plot twist from a Charles Dickens novel. This unconstitutional and illegal activity is justified by the system though. It is claimed that the vast majority of non-custodial parents are jailed for deliberately withholding or hiding money out of spite or a feeling that they’ve been unfairly gouged by the courts. The truth is that parents are wrongly being locked away without any regard for their ability to pay, even without legal representation.
A 39-year-old Iraqi war veteran found himself in that situation in November, when a judge in Floyd County, Georgia, sent him to jail for violating a court order to pay child support. He was stunned when the judge rebuffed his argument that he had made regular payments for more than a decade before losing his job in July 2009 and had recently resumed working. “I felt that with my payment history and that I had just started working, maybe I would be able to convince the judge to give me another month and a half to start making the payments again… but that didn’t sit too well with him because he went ahead and decided to lock me up.” Miller spent three months in jail before being released, one of six plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed in March that seeks to force the state of Georgia to provide lawyers for poor non-custodial parents facing the loss of their freedom for failing to pay child support.
Languishing in jail for weeks, months, and sometimes over a year, these parents share one trait besides their poverty. They went to jail without ever talking to an attorney, according to the lawsuit filed by the Southern Center of Human Rights in Atlanta. While jailing non-paying parents does lead to payment in many cases, critics say that it unfairly penalizes poor and unemployed parents who have no ability to pay, even though federal law stipulates that they must have “willfully” violated a court order before being incarcerated. They rightly compare the plight of such parents to the poor people consigned to infamous “debtors’ prisons” before such institutions were outlawed in the early 1800s.
The threat of jailing delinquent parents is intended to coerce them to pay, but in rare cases it can have tragic results. In June, a New Hampshire father and military veteran, Thomas Ball, died after dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself ablaze in front of the Cheshire County Court House. In a long, rambling letter to the local Sentinel newspaper, the 58-year-old Ball stated that he did so to focus attention on what he considered unfair domestic violence laws and because he expected to be jailed at an upcoming hearing on his failure to pay up to $3,000 in delinquent child support, even though he had been out of work for two years.
What the legal loophole? The ability of judges to jail parents without a trial is possible because failure to pay child support is usually handled as a civil matter, meaning that the non-custodial parent is found guilty of contempt of court and ordered to appear at a hearing. As a result, he or she is not entitled to some constitutional protections that criminal defendants receive, including the presumption of innocence. States have a great deal of leeway in family law, which includes child support cases.
The child support program currently serves approximately 17 million U.S. children, or nearly a quarter of the nation’s minors. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that poor parents are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer when facing jail for non-payment of child support. The justices said that states should use “substantial procedural safeguards” to ensure that those who have no means to pay are not locked up. Accordingly, poor parents are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer when facing jail for non-payment of child support. The fact remains that the Supreme Court ruling provides very weak protections for poor parents and will not solve the problem of wrongful incarceration of poor parents. The fact remains that even in states where the non-custodial parents do have the right to a lawyer, those without the financial resources to meet their child-support obligations frequently land in jail anyway.
A 2009 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank in Washington, D.C., found that only half of the child support debtors in California prisons had reported income in the two preceding years. The median net income of the rest of the non-custodial parents was a mere $2,881, well below the U.S. poverty level. Courts often order poor parents to pay too much for child support in the first place, increasing the likelihood that they will fall behind on payments. The percentage of child support that can be removed from a paycheck depends on the laws of the state regarding garnishment.
No one can say how many parents are jailed each year for failing to pay child support, because states typically do not track such cases. The U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics suggest that approximately 10,000 parents were jailed in 2002 for non-payment of child support which represents 1.7 percent of the overall U.S. jail population. That number is undoubtedly up since the U.S. economic meltdown. After the meltdown in October 2008, the child support enforcement program registered a decrease in child support collection for the first time ever. Payments collected from unemployment insurance benefits nearly tripled and the number of cases in which children were receiving public assistance also rose.
Military veterans are especially at risk as they struggle to find work when they leave the armed services. One veteran noted that he fell behind on child support for his 4-year-old daughter after he left the service and couldn’t find work. “I was arrested and I went to jail and they asked me all sorts of questions. I was never told I was under arrest and I was never read my rights. So I did not know what rights I had. Of course, I’ve seen all these movies, but half that isn’t true.” Not having a lawyer in a civil contempt hearing increases the likelihood that the parent will be jailed, even if he or she is not guilty of “willfully” defying the court’s order, say critics of the policy.
In the absence of counsel the opportunity to raise the defense is often missed, and large numbers of indigent parents are wrongfully imprisoned for failure to meet child support obligations every year. The deck is further stacked against the delinquent parent because the state often acts as the plaintiff, seeking to recover the cost of providing public assistance to the child. The state has every benefit to do because they receive money from the Federal Government for collecting child support.
Every state has laws that mandate the illegality of debtors prisons. The state is morally required to give impoverished people a way out. The law says that you can only put non-custodial parents in jail if they have money and won’t pay. That simply isn’t the case and reality proves it.
US Law & the Illegal Debtors Prison by E.J. Manning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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