April 30, 2014
It may be difficult for many to understand that being jailed for debt is illegal in the United States, especially since it has become a more familiar practice in the 21st century. According to Kelly Beaucar Vlahos of FoxNews.com (2013), before the time of bankruptcy laws and social safety nets, poor folks and ruined business owners were locked up until their debts were paid off. The country has taken a step back to those days especially, when it is in regards to collecting child support debt. Yes, it is happening to people who owe money for outstanding traffic tickets and other unpaid citations, but parents are being jailed way too often for outstanding child support debt. It is being disguised as contempt of court to justify mass incarcerations, but the reality is that debtors’ prisons are the actual reason for these lockups.
Contempt of court as it relates to child support can be a civil or criminal in nature but both carry stiff punishments including incarceration. According to Elizabeth G. Patterson (2008), criminal contempt is supposed to be a punishment for willful misbehavior, not for the absence of funds. The child support court does not seem to recognize the willful intent that a person must exhibit in order to be held in criminal contempt. Both of these charges have a direct relationship to ones financial status and are greater punishment for the poor. Arrests and incarcerations are, more than likely, the consequences for nonpayment when the noncustodial parent is poor because the parent clearly has less access to resources with which to pay the required child support, (Rebecca May, 2004). The end result is that more people are hunted, arrested, and jailed for no other crime except for being poor.
More cases seem to stem from the civil contempt of court branch of the child support agencies and the court system. Civil contempt is supposed to be used to coerce a person to do something that he is able, but unwilling, to do, (Patterson, 2008). Again, the language of being unwilling to pay creeps back into the conversation and should pose a dilemma for these courts. Without proof that one can pay, but refuses to do so, the court fails to satisfy the criteria associated with a charge of contempt. It is often said that the jailed hold the keys to his or her freedom by paying for that freedom with money. In my opinion, that is as direct an example of debtors’ prison as any other that can be identified. Jailing people for child support debt will only increase the amount owed to the local and state governments and decrease the money owed to the child.
This increase is applied through court costs, restitution, and interest in most states. According to Vlahos (2013), North Carolina imposes late fees on debt not paid and surcharges on payment plans. This, undoubtedly, causes more parents to return to jails across the country due to inability to meet these growing obligations. The more disturbing issue besides contempt of court being used to disguise debtors’ prisons is the lack of rights that the parent retains during the entire process. Civil defendants generally are not entitled to the constitutional protections that criminal defendants receive (Solomon-Fears, Smith, Berry, 2010). This means that besides being jailed for debt, the parent has no rights to an attorney, a trial, or a chance to prove that he or she may be too poor to pay the ransom in exchange for their freedom.
Criminal contempt of court fare no better as defendants (parents) are afforded certain constitutional protections, however, with little or no money, the defense may be inadequate to properly defend the parent. For those that are able to raise money and are freed with a payment arrangement, states will pursue every option on order to collect the money. Vlahos (2013) writes that many jurisdictions have taken to hiring private collection/probation companies to go after debtors. Most people can agree that if money is available, parents would pay their child support and all other associated debt. However, if the parent is poor, he or she becomes subject to strict punishments including jail.
Some states have even given these private collection agencies and probation companies the authority to revoke probation and incarcerate to debtors’ if they can’t pay (Vlahos, 2013). In this era, debtors’ prisons are a growing reality. Not only is the government permitted to lock a person in a cell for inability to pay a debt, private collection agencies are able to do the same. Contempt of court, whether civil or criminal, is a disguise used to hide the truth. Poor people who happen to be parents are being thrown in jail for no crime except not being wealthy enough to pay imputed debt. This needs to end as soon as possible. One day people may be jailed for owing the cable or the electric companies if this illegal process is allowed to remain in our court systems.
May, R. (2004, January). The effect of child support and criminal justice systems on low-income noncustodial parents. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from http://www.cffpp.org/publications/Effect%20of%20Child%20Support.pdf
Patterson, E. G. (2008). Civil contempt and the indigent child support obligor. Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, 18(95), 95-141. Retrieved from http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/research/jlpp/upload/patterson.pdf
Solomon-Fears, C., Smith, A. M., & Berry, C. (2012, March 6). Child support enforcement: Incarceration as the last resort penalty for nonpayment of support. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from http://www.ncsea.org/documents/CRS-Report-on-CSE-and-Incarceration-for-Non-Payment-March-6-2012.pdf
Vlahos, K. B. (2013, December 28). Local courts reviving ‘debtors' prison' for overdue fines, fees | Fox News. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/12/28/local-courts-reviving-debtors-prison-for-overdue-fines-fees/