Can states imprison deadbeat parents without providing a lawyer?
It might go by an informal name, but the issue of deadbeat parents is serious.
|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.
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?
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