When fathers are unable to pay child support, either for a child born out of wedlock or after one partner decides to file for divorce, courts may give them a few warnings before simply throwing them into jail.
Some fathers who do not pay child support argue that this practice amounts to throwing them into debtor’s prison. Supporters of the practice, however, claim that the threat of jail keeps many deadbeat dads honest.
The debate has reached a tipping point in Georgia, where five fathers have filed a lawsuit against the state for its practice of jailing parents who don’t pay child support, according to a recent report from the Associated Press.
Sources indicate that the fathers are claiming in their lawsuit that forcing them to go to jail when they are unable to make child support payments creates a sort of debtor’s prison.
In their lawsuit, the fathers also want to force the state of Georgia to provide poor defendants with family law attorneys during their child support hearings. Apparently, many parents cannot afford legal representation during these hearings, which could determine the fate of a parent’s short-term freedom.
The men recently won a minor court battle when a judge allowed thousands of other parents who had been jailed for failing to pay child support to join the growing lawsuit.
In response to the claim, state attorneys in Georgia filed a motion claiming that the practice of jailing so-called deadbeat parents is a necessary response to an “epidemic” of parents who fail to pay child support.
The attorneys claim that the parents in the lawsuit were jailed because of the “consequences of their own poor decision-making,” and that the state should not be blamed for simply enforcing the law.
Supporters of the practice also argue that judges often set a “purge fee” below the amount of child support that a parent owes. If the parent can meet this lowered fee, he or she can avoid being thrown into jail.
However, despite this “purge fee,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that, in the past decade, 3,612 people were jailed in Georgia’s Gwinett County for failing to pay child support. The average length of stay for each offense was 127 days.
And the perpetrators range from the very wealthy to the very poor. According to Sherriff Butch Conway, “[w]e’ve seen some who’ve been jailed come up with $15,000 to $20,000 in a couple of days,” but other defendants “will languish for months and not be able to come up with $100 to $200.”
The debate over the legality of sending parents who cannot pay child support to prison will likely rage for years, especially as the current lawsuit makes its way through the court system.