No sympathy for 'deadbeat dads' ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

December 23, 1992

It's hard to feel much sympathy for "deadbeat dads" when they whine about being in the county detention center. Consider Mario Sanchez of Friendship. He complains that he's flat broke and out of a job because he was stricken from the jail's work release program -- after he tested positive for marijuana use.

Perhaps if he'd spent money on his support payment instead of marijuana, he wouldn't have been in jail in the first place.

The recent furor surrounding the release of 61 fathers incarcerated for non-support obscures the fact that jailing delinquent fathers on civil contempt charges works as an inducement to pay. Consider that between Oct. 6 and Nov. 2, 166 parents involved in 203 cases were jailed for failure to pay a total of $1.14 million in child support.

These were "last resort" cases, sent to court after repeated RTC efforts to extract payment or a legitimate excuse for non-payment. The judges demanded that the parents pay only 20 percent of the total debt -- $231,000 -- to win release. By the end of November, half of the cases had been completely purged, and partial payment had been made on another 36 cases.

Such facts cast doubt on County Public Defender Alan R. Friedman's claim that fathers are being jailed as punishment rather than as an incentive for payment. (Indeed, only a small fraction of the cases handled by domestic support end up in jail.)

There are some problems with the way non-support cases are handled. Judge Bruce C. Williams found that defendants have not been told of their right to counsel, and judges have not been determining ability to pay before setting amounts required for release. Both of those mistakes can be corrected easily enough.

A stickier problem is that jail policies prevent unemployed fathers from looking for a job, putting them in a Catch-22 situation. This is a legitimate complaint detention center officials need to address. The jail has only two counselors, who have other duties, to help all these men find work.

Unfortunately, the employment dilemma has generated more sympathy for jailed fathers than they deserve. People want to know why we're taking up valuable jail space with "deadbeat dads." The answer is that a taste of prison is often the only way to make them pay.

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