Speak Outs
Speak Out
Can states imprison deadbeat parents without providing a lawyer?

The right to attorney was established by the 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, in which a Florida man charged with breaking and entering lacked the money to hire a lawyer, defended himself and lost, then received a five-year prison sentence. The court ruled that, under the Sixth Amendment, criminal defendants facing jail time who cannot afford an attorney must be appointed one by the court.
It might go by an informal name, but the issue of deadbeat parents is serious.

State and local governments across the country go to great lengths to make sure a parent doesn’t skip out on child-support payments. In Kentucky’s Hopkins County, pizza boxes are printed up with wanted fliers displaying the names and photos of the region’s biggest deadbeats; West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources wants to distribute a list of deadbeat parents to casinos in the state, that way it can keep a portion of whatever a deadbeat parent who gambles might win.

In South Carolina, indigent deadbeat parents can be imprisoned without being provided a court-appointed lawyer. Other states, including Florida, Maine and Georgia, also do not appoint lawyers for deadbeat parents who can’t afford one. Some think this goes too far, and the Supreme Court will rule this summer on whether the practice is constitutional.

Michael D. Turner, a South Carolina man who owed $6,000 in missed child support payments, was jailed for a year. He was held under civil contempt – which means he could have ended his sentence at any point by going along with the court’s order and paying the money he owed. But he said he couldn’t; Turner said he was too poor to pay and, as a result, was in jail for his entire sentence. He argued that if the state had provided him with a lawyer, he could have made a stronger case.

The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that low-income citizens facing jail time must be provided a lawyer – it’s required under the Sixth Amendment, which says people cannot be convicted without “assistance of counsel.” But the Sixth Amendment applies only to criminal cases – and deadbeat parents are a civil case. What does that mean? A civil offense is usually a dispute involving two private citizens or groups; a criminal offense is harmful to society as a whole. Think about it as the difference between a dispute with a neighbor over property damage and an armed robbery.

Still, if a civil offense can result in extended jail time – which it can for deadbeat parents in South Carolina, as Turner’s case proves – some say that a lawyer should be provided in those cases as well, if the defendant cannot afford one. Turner’s ex-wife countered that it would be unfair for Turner to have a court-appointed lawyer because she then could not afford to hire a private one.

The South Carolina government argues it already provides due process, and uses imprisonment only as a last resort. The state says that the person facing jail receives several notices of the debt before being brought to hearing, and that the court must prove that the defendant is capable of paying before he or she is locked up.

What do you think?

Should states be able to imprison deadbeat parents without appointing a lawyer if they can’t afford one? Should civil cases be treated the same as criminal cases when involving low-income citizens who can’t afford a lawyer? Do you think South Carolina violated the due process protections in the Constitution? Do you think its process is fair? If you were a Supreme Court justice, how would you rule?
Join the Discussion
limited to 2000 characters including spaces  

Thank you for commenting.
Your comment is awaiting approval.
Click here to view all Speak Outs
IRving/ TX
Bradley/ Nimitz
States should be able to imprison deadbeat parents without providing a lawyer. It may be hard to raise a child, but it is a huge responsibility to help. Child support is something made so that if you keep up with it, you will not have to worry about being in debt. If those parents could not keep up with their kids, they are obviously spending their money elsewhere on things that they do not need. That child needs to be taken care of, and that is what should be the most important thing.

Irving, TX
Mauricio N.
Bradley/ Nimitz High School
States should be able to imprison deadbeat parents without a lawyer because the civil decision would still be guilty since the evidence that the parent did skip out on child-support. is present. Therefore, ANY citizen should not be able to have a lawyer by their side and South Carolina has not violated the Constitution. The process seems fair. If I were the Justice, I would appropiately rule in this exact manner.

David B
Bradley/Nimitz High School
I think they should imprison the deadbeat parents without a lawyer. If they can’t handle a child’s responsibility and be more concerned on drugs and gambling then why should they get a fair trial? Think about it, even if they did get one they still would be found guilty either way. Giving them a lawyer is like given someone their last meal before they are being put to death. Yeah you’ll use it but in the end, you’re still screwed.

Irving, TX
Andrea C
People who do not take care of their responsibilities and provide for their children, don't deserve the same privileges as everyone else. Contrary to what some may believe, the Supreme Court should have power to do with these people what they please. If a person cannot afford a lawyer, they shouldn't be “given” one. Child rearing can be difficult enough with two parents-imagine trying it with one! The deadbeat parent had many opportunities to do the right thing by his kid (s). This is all fair because what is most important is that the child is properly taken care of. The bigger issue isn't that they broke the law in not paying, it's that they have financially abandoned their offspring. That in itself should be ruled unconstitutional.

Lisa P
I believe that everyone has a right to a fair trial. Although deadbeat parents should have consequences like having their license suspended, or having to pay fines; a trial without a counsel provided is unconstitutional.

Hector G
It is defknitely unconstitutional to put "dead beat parents" in jail for not being able to afford a lawyer. These parents should not be withheld assistance because their "offense" is less severe than a criminal's would be. Low-income citizens should be treared the same as those in criminal cases. The South Carolina due process protections were vilated in the constituion by putting the man in jail for not being able to afford to pay his child support

koester/wendler middle school
My belief is that everyone deserves a fair trial,and even though it is a civil case it should still be a thing ware every one deserves a fair trial,and if they want a lawyer,i say give them a lawyer.

Brittany P.
The Supreme Court of the U.S. should have complete control to imprison any parent that doesn't pay their child support, with or without a lawyer. Having a lawyer is a privilege and if the parent can't follow the rules which had been laid before him/her from the beginning then the Supreme Court should have to right to do whatever they rule constitutional. The responsibility of raising and supporting a child is huge, but this does not mean a parent can simply skip out on this process. Ruling this case as a criminal case is a bit harsh, so if I were on the Supreme Court then I would put this case in the civil cases. This would then justify the Supreme Court's ability to imprison deadbeat parents because lawyers are only required in criminal cases. Yes, this process is fair because the child's well being depends on the parents ability to support him/her.

Greencastle-Antrim HS
I believe that courts have every right in the world to imprison deadbeat parents without providing them a lawyer. In my opinion, parents that do not do right by their children are guilty no matter what and do not need a lawyer because it is very cut and dry what they have or haven’t done. Like the article states, lawyers are only required in the event of criminal cases and deadbeat parents are a matter of civil courts. They do not need a lawyer because if they are in court, then they very clearly did not do something that they were supposed to do, like pay child support or something of that nature. In the U.S. approximately 11 million fathers do not live with their children and almost two thirds of them do not pay any form of child support, according to the Urban Institute. That is an outrageous number of people who do not support their children. Obviously, something needs to be done to set a standard that this is not right and should be punished. I feel that sending them to jail without be appointed a lawyer could potentially get the point across.

Shelby Z
I think that states should be able to imprison deadbeat parents without appointing a lawyer if they cant afford one. A child requires a lot of responsibility. If a parent should have to pay child support it's only fair to the child and to the other parent that they keep up with it. If a parent can't afford a lawyer I don't think that it's fair they be appointed one. They should not get behind in payments in the first place. They should recognize their responsibilities as a parent before anything else.

I do think that states should imprison deadbeat parents if they are deemed improper to care for children. Children are the future really and their safety should be taken very seriously. Whether they are American or not, Nimitz kids, does not mean that they are not subject to the law. Negligent parents should be brought to justice.

Sharon J
Deadbeat parents are not the most popular people in our society, but does that make them any less of an American? The Supreme Court is in charge of interpreting laws and deciding what is ultimately right and wrong in our country. They stated that anyone who is facing jail time must be provided a lawyer. If our government starts putting deadbeat parents in jail for civil disputes without representation, whats to stop them from jailing people for civil disputes that otherwise could be handled much easier and simpler? Every American deserves the same right, like the ones protected by the 6th amendment.

Related News
Related Resources