Five fathers in Georgia are fighting back against a court system they claim creates a “debtor’s jail” for already down-on-their-luck parents.
Represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights, the fathers seek to challenge the jail sentences handed out to parents who, unable to pay child support, are unable to hire a lawyer to defend themselves, and are sent to prison. This, the fathers say, further restricts their ability to acquire employment and pay off the debt.
“Who’s going to want to hire me from jail,” one of the fathers, Lance Hendrix, asked the Washington Examiner. “‘I’m currently an inmate in Cook County Jail. Would you mind hiring me?’ Yeah right.”
Hendrix knows the drill all too well. He returned from military duty in 2009 and took some construction work and odd jobs to help pay off his child support. He paid roughly $3,800 but could afford the rest, and a judge sentenced Hendrix to four months in prison.
The key to the dispute – put on your Law & Order hats and wake up Mike Post – is the difference in Georgia law between criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases, you have the right to an attorney and in contempt cases, can only be jailed for 20 days. But since child support cases are a civil court matter, defendants have no automatic right to an attorney, and jail sentences have no cap. Georgia is one of only four states that don’t require plaintiffs that are unable to afford a lawyer to be provided one.
That’s why the SCHR, along with Hendrix and the other four men, are looking for Georgia to provide lawyers, at no cost, to parents unable to hire one themselves. The suit would not cover parents who can afford their own legal counsel but decline to hire one.
A judge recently granted class-action status to the lawsuit, which allows “thousands of other indigent parents who were imprisoned to join the lawsuit,” according to the Washington Examiner.