Judge rules jailing 'deadbeat dads' illegal

December 12, 1992|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

Anne Arundel County has been illegally jailing fathers who fail to pay child support, a Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday.

And Judge Bruce C. Williams said he will consider next week releasing all 80 "deadbeat dads" now being held in the county Detention Center. He said he would schedule individual hearings for each father.

The ruling came the day after the county sheriff's office announced that it had jailed 28 such parents in a sting operation. The decision probably will not affect those parents, however, because they have not been through the civil contempt proceedings that resulted in jail sentences for the others, prosecutors said.

Judge Williams found that prosecutors failed to tell defendants in child support cases of their right to a lawyer and that judges used civil case standards, rather than the more strict standards of a criminal case.

"Each time a defendant is brought before the court on a new contempt charge he faces a new threat to his liberty," Judge Williams wrote in a case involving an Annapolis dishwasher and a Crownsville construction worker.

If the father was poor, he "had a right to be advised of his rights to counsel during the civil contempt proceeding," the judge ruled.

The 17-page decision also said that Circuit Court judges have based decisions to jail deadbeat dads on the amount of money they owe, rather than their ability to pay. Such rationale is "arbitrary and thus illegal," he held.

"I think the judge is wrong," complained State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, whose office represents parents seeking support payments. Fathers are routinely informed of their right to a lawyer every time they are brought in for hearings, he said.

Fathers are sent to jail only if they refuse to pay even a small part of the amount they owe, which usually is thousands of dollars, Mr. Weathersbee said.

And if a jailed father pays at least part of the money, he often can be released, the prosecutor added.

Warren W. Davis III, assistant state's attorney, said prosecutors don't try to jail someone who has a good reason for not making payments -- he's out of work, for example.

But Alan R. Friedman, head of the county public defender's office called the decision a victory.

"What we're talking about is people who don't pay child support because they have no money and then end up in jail because they have nomoney," he said.

Mr. Friedman and Mark Blumberg, an assistant public defender, argued the case last month for two men sent to jail because they couldn't pay small fractions of the huge sums they owed in back child support payments.

Mr. Friedman said he appealed to Judge Williams because county judges had been jailing increasing numbers of indigent fathers for non-support in the past year and ordering longer sentences.

By Nov. 14 last year, 24 fathers had been jailed for nonsupport. The number leapt to 79 by that date this year. At the same time, the number of fathers serving sentences longer than 90 days jumped from 19 to 63.

In many cases, the cost of keeping fathers in an overcrowded jail -- $55 per day -- exceeds the amounts the courts have ordered them to pay for release, Mr. Friedman said.

"The jail is for people who are a danger to society," he argued, "and these people are not a danger to society," he said.

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