WARNER ROBINS -- Whether parents should be locked up for failing to pay child support is debated in Houston County.
Houston Public Defender Nick White is opposed to locking up people who don’t pay, equating it to a debtor’s prison.
But David Cooke, a senior assistant district attorney who leads the county’s child support division said the court works with parents and only jails those unwilling pay.
“My personal feeling about the child support and people being put in jail is that it is a debtor’s prison,” White said. “Debtor’s prisons are illegal. But the way the law gets around it is that they’re not technically being put in jail because they haven’t paid child support directly.
“They’re being put in jail as a contempt of court because the court has already ordered them to pay child support, and they haven’t done so. So there’s the technicality.”
His office does not handle child support cases but does represent indigent clients.
A lawsuit seeks to force Georgia to provide attorneys to represent parents unable to afford counsel when facing possible jail time for child support violations.
White does believe there should be consequences for not paying child support.
“I think what the alternative should be for this kind of contempt would be things like electronic monitoring with house arrest unless they are at their job,” White said. “That would be a good way of addressing it because then they are not in prison or they’re not in jail. Now, their liberty is still somewhat curtailed because of the house arrest but those kinds of penalties are not illegal under a civil context, whereas being in jail for debtor’s prison is.”
But Cooke noted, “We don’t lock up parents who can’t pay. We lock up parents who won’t pay. There is a big difference.”
Cooke said Houston County works with those who can demonstrate they’re unable to pay, while those who are unwilling are held in contempt and sent to jail.
Cooke also noted assistance is offered through the “fatherhood program” that provides job referrals, job-skills training, help with résumés and such to help individuals find a job.
“All cases are decided on a case-by-case basis with the non-custodial parent having to explain their situation to the judge,” Cooke said. “Many folks who claim they can’t pay and don’t have a job based on their history and lack of credibility, the judge will find it’s willful and order them to jail, and miraculously, thousands and thousands of dollars will appear to get them out of jail. That happens a lot.”
Of 471 people being held in the Houston County jail Friday, 15 were being held on child support violations, said Houston County sheriff’s Maj. Charles Holt, jail administrator.
Unlike Houston County, child support enforcement in Bibb County is not handled through the district attorney’s office.
A special assistant attorney general attorney prosecutes child support contempt actions for the Georgia Department of Human Services in Bibb County.
Daryl Robinson, counsel to the state attorney general, said the office was declining comment based on the pending litigation.
According to figures provided by the state Department of Human Services to the Southern Center for Human Rights, 470 parents in Bibb, Peach and Crawford counties were jailed in connection with child support contempt actions initiated by Special Assistant Attorney General Robert J. Sikes between Feb. 28, 2011 and Oct. 14, 2011.
Also, snapshot figures from DHS provided to the SCHR, found that on Oct 14, 2011, the number of people jailed for child support debt from Macon were 65 and from Warner Robins were 27. But the data did not indicate where the individuals were jailed.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.