Forty-one inmates at the Baltimore County Detention Center, locked up over the past few months for failing to pay child support, were released after a state appeals court ruled that county judges had been jailing them illegally.
Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II issued orders releasing the inmates Tuesday and Wednesday after he reviewed a Court of Special Appeals decision that freed one county inmate and set specific requirements for jailing others who owe back payments for child support.
The Court of Special Appeals ruled June 13 that to jail someone for civil contempt in a child support case, a judge must conduct a civil hearing and find that the parent has the ability to pay the bond amount required for release.
Turnbull said that judges also may jail child-support defendants for criminal contempt, but in criminal cases defendants have the right to jury trials.
"The bottom line is that the appeals court said we can't do what it is we've been doing," he said.
Turnbull said that the practice in Baltimore County was for caseworkers at the county Office of Child Support Enforcement to request a court order requiring sheriff's deputies to arrest a parent who repeatedly failed to pay court-ordered child support.
When a parent was brought to court and could not make any payments, bail was set and, if the parent could not pay, he was frequently jailed for a civil contempt violation to await trial -- often for weeks or months.
Michael Story, assistant director of the Office of Child Support Enforcement, said that parents were initially being jailed for up to 10 days to await trial, but because of crowded dockets, the time defendants were awaiting trial stretched to several weeks or months.
"We had been looking at this issue, and knew that they'd been in there for too long," Story said.
Judges also began recommending work release for the inmates and setting trial dates that often meant two- or three-month periods of incarceration awaiting trial, according to court records.
Story said the process encouraged parents to make payments, sometimes a few days or weeks after they were jailed.
"While people were awaiting their trials, maybe a relative or somebody they knew would come in with the money," Story said.
He added that only the most serious child-support violation cases -- those involving repeated failure to make payments -- were brought to court.
But advocates for those jailed said the process meant inmates were being locked up simply because they were broke.
"They obviously can't be out making money if they're being locked up in jail," said Donald E. Zaremba, Circuit Court supervisor for the Baltimore County Public Defender's Office.
The Court of Special Appeals agreed, ruling June 13 in Redden vs. Department of Social Services that the practice was illegal.
The ruling was not expected to result in similar large-scale inmate releases in other jurisdictions.
"I really can't imagine it's going to affect our jurisdiction very much," said Alan R. Friedman, Anne Arundel County public defender.
The court ruled that Baltimore County Chief Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr. violated the rights of Eugene Anthony Redden in November when he sentenced him in a civil proceeding to five months for failing to make support payments. DeWaters recommended that Redden be allowed on work release if he found a job.
Redden had fallen behind on the $80 he was required to pay every two weeks to support the three children that he fathered by two women, according to the opinion.
Redden was $3,710 in arrears, had made no support payments for the previous eight months and only four payments in the previous year when he was brought before DeWaters.
But Court of Special Appeals Judge Arrie W. Davis found that at the time he was sentenced, Redden was unemployed, had lost his home to foreclosure, was living with friends and that his only sources of income were government rent subsidies and food stamps.
"The court's imposition of a prison term was in error because appellant demonstrated that he lacked the present ability to pay," the court ruled.