Debtors’ prison used to be a fact of life in England and in our country during the colonial period. Supposedly, the United States phased out debtors’ prison along with slavery in the mid-19th century. Well, slavery is indeed gone, but debtors’ prison is back with a vengeance in the form of sending fathers to jail over small child support disputes. This type of imprisonment is based on “civil contempt.” That means someone can be sent directly to jail by a judge without the constitutional safeguards given to criminal defendants.
Michael Turner was allegedly behind $5,000 in paying child support. He was struggling and had broken his back working, entitling him to Social Security Disability Income. He said to the judge, “I just hope that you give me a chance.” But the judge ordered Turner to jail for 12 months. When Turner asked the judge why he was not allowed to receive good-time or work credits, the judge replied, “Because that’s my ruling.”
The law says a father cannot be sent to jail for civil contempt for non-payment of child support if he is unable to make the payments. But Turner received a one-year jail sentence without any showing about whether he could even pay the $5000, and indeed, it appears he could not. With some pro bono legal assistance, Turner's case went to the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of whether the State should have hired an attorney for him. The Supreme Court was not willing to order an attorney for millions of child-support cases. But 5 Justices held that the defendant in child support disputes is entitled to the “benefit of alternative procedures,” such as telling Turner that his “ability to pay” is the key issue in his case.
The Supreme Court overturned Turner’s prison sentence, but that didn’t help Turner because he had already been forced to serve a year in jail. This is just one more example of gross mistreatment of fathers in family courts.
Listen to the radio commentary here: