Law Center questions ‘debtors’ prison’

3rd January, 2011
Rome News-Tribune
Diane Wagner

Randy Miller is serving a sentence in the Floyd County work release center for falling more than $3,000 behind on his child support payments.

A petition for his release is slated for a Jan. 10 hearing in Floyd County Superior Court.

“He should never have been incarcerated,” said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. “In this country, we don’t put people in jail just because they’re poor.”

Miller is one of hundreds of indigent Georgia parents jailed for contempt of child-support orders, Geraghty said. The SCHR is representing him free of charge.

“In our office, we’ve seen a real increase in people like Mr. Miller being sent to jail, despite their best efforts to pay and their indigence,” she said.

Some of it is because recent legislation makes it tougher on parents who don’t pay, said retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher of Rome.

Custodial parents who end up needing state assistance have to turn over the rights to the delinquent payments, so it’s the state — not the other parent — who is demanding the money in court.

“But circumstances change,” Fletcher said. “You may have someone who had a great year, but their business goes sour, and they end up with a court order they don’t have the resources to comply with.”

A contempt hearing offers the choice of payment or jail, but defendants who can’t pay in the first place don’t really have a choice.

“People came to this country to be relieved of debtors’ prisons, but this is almost like a debtors’ prison,” Fletcher said.

Court filings indicate Miller’s payments were consistent from 1995 until he lost his job in July 2009 and was unable to find steady work. The state filed contempt charges in December 2009, alleging he was $1,049.57 in arrears, but dismissed the case in January 2010.

In June, he was held in contempt, and his payments were increased. In October, he lost his home to foreclosure. On Nov. 11, he landed a part-time job; and on Nov. 15, he was jailed until he paid $3,000 or served 90 to 120 days in the work release center.

Miller has been able to retain his job, but his check is garnished for $135 a week for child support and $140 a week for room and board at the work release center. The center also charges $35 a month for parking and $10 for mandated drug tests.

“Before he was incarcerated, he had the ability to pay a greater portion of his earnings to child support,” Geraghty said. “Now he has to pay fees that are all deducted first.”

Miller represented himself during the November hearing — which is another issue raised in the SCHR petition. Indigent defendants in criminal cases have the right to a public defender, but that right doesn’t extend to civil cases.

Fletcher said the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of an indigent South Carolina parent that hinges on that lack of representation.

“A national committee has made it a recommendation: The right to counsel should extend to anyone who could end up being confined in a jail or other facility,” he said.

A work release center is a better alternative than jail for parents who owe child support debts, Fletcher said, but it doesn’t solve all the problems — especially when jobs are scarce.

Allowing a public defender for debtors facing jail time also would be a step in the right direction.

“Nothing’s going to solve everything. There are just not enough (financial) resources in most cases. But that would at least make the system work better,” Fletcher said.