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Georgia: Child Support Contempt Findings Create Debtor’s Prisons

by David M. Reutter

The Great Recession has put millions of Americans out of work, which has caused more people than usual to become delinquent on their child support obligations and other debts. Many courts, especially those in Georgia and South Carolina, have reacted to child support delinquencies by finding parents in arrears to be in contempt, which creates debtor’s prisons when those who can’t pay are incarcerated.

The issue of child support payments and assuring that children are properly cared for is rife with complexities. “There are a lot of kids out there with parents who just don’t pay, and for every dollar they’re not paying someone else has to pay,” noted Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. “Too often it’s the taxpayers. They’re taxing the court systems that have to process them and taxing the jails that have to house them. They tax the welfare rolls. It also forces extended families – grandmothers and grandfathers – to pay.”

In Georgia, when people are found in contempt for failure to pay court-ordered child support, the court sets a “purge” fee that the parent can pay to avoid jail time. In some cases that policy is successful.

“We’ve seen some who’ve been jailed come up with $15,000 to $20,000 in a couple of days,” said Sheriff Butch Conway of Gwinnett County, Georgia. “Some will languish for months and not be able to come up with $100 or $200. Some can’t pay it, but, sadly, I think some do have the money but just don’t want to pay.”

However, it’s the people who simply can’t pay that puts the whole policy in question. “We don’t believe in debtor’s prisons in this country, and that’s what we’re doing here in some cases,” said Sears.

The case of Randy Miller, 39, a veteran, exemplifies that situation. Miller, who provided a statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was in the Floyd County Jail at the time due to his inability to pay a $3,000 purge fee.

In 2009, Miller lost his job as a service technician for AT&T. While his income disappeared, his court-ordered $452 monthly child support payments for his 16-year-old daughter continued to pile up. Court records show that his house went into foreclosure and he had only 30 cents left in the bank.

Yet in November 2010, he was sent to jail for four months for failure to pay $4,000 in child support. The bill continued to grow while he was incarcerated. “My biggest concern right now is finding some work,” Miller stated.

According to records from Gwinnett County, over the past decade 3,612 people were jailed for failure to pay child support, with each serving an average of 127 days. An Open Records Act request submitted to Georgia sheriffs by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) resulted in 135 responses from the state’s 150 counties, which revealed that 526 parents were jailed statewide for failing to pay child support.

“The people we see in jail are not wealthy ‘deadbeat’ dads,” said Sarah Geraghty with the SCHR. “They are often working people who have lost jobs and become indigent.”

Sometimes, the person jailed for failure to pay child support is not even the child’s parent. That was the situation with Frank Hatley, who spent more than a year behind bars for not having the money to pay court-ordered child support. He was sent to jail even though both the judge and state attorney knew Hatley was not the child’s father. Geraghly said Hatley should have been provided counsel at his contempt hearing.

Whether or not parents facing contempt proceedings are entitled to counsel was the subject of a case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 23, 2011. That case was brought on behalf of Michael Turner, who spent over a year in jail after being found in contempt for not paying $5,700 in child support for his daughter. During the contempt hearing he informed the court he was addicted to drugs and had gotten clean, but once he found a job he broke his back. The court held people imprisoned for not paying court-ordered child support are not entitled to government-appointed counsel to contest or defend the charges. We will report the decision in greater detail in an upcoming issue of PLN. In May 2011, PLN published three articles detailing similar situations in Texas, Minnesota and other states where debtors are jailed for failure to pay court fees or child support obligations. [See: PLN, May 2011, pp.21, 26, 40].

It appears that in conjunction with the ongoing economic problems in the U.S., the return of debtor’s prisons is a growing trend. It is also a critical means of oppressing poor people and bringing them within the control of the modern American police state regardless of whether or not they commit crimes.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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