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Child Support and the Problem of 'Debtor Imprisonment': Part I

A recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution considered the issue of child support and the way the Georgia legal system treats parents who are unable to pay.

Since the recession began to take hold, there has been an increase of charges for contempt of court and incarcerations for failure to pay child support. While many feel it is only right to punish deadbeat parents and that the most important goal is to ensure that children are being supported, there is also the problematic issue of parents being jailed for a real inability to make support payments.

Contempt of court can be either civil or criminal in nature. The purpose of imprisoning a person for civil contempt is to enforce a court order, while the purpose of imprisonment for criminal contempt is to punish disobedience and disrespect. In Georgia, judges set a "purge fee" after finding a parent in contempt. The purge fee is usually a smaller amount than is owed in child support. If a parent can pay the fee, they can avoid incarceration.

The reasons why parents don't pay support do vary. Some parents are incarcerated for their refusal to pay child support, others for failing to find work or deliberately hiding their income and assets. Some parents who have been incarcerated will produce goodly sums of money within a couple of days. But others struggle for months to come up with even small amounts, and are simply unable to pay. For the latter parents, the system seems to simply be beating them down without giving a chance to get back up.

Jailing parents who are unable to pay support has led some to compare it to debtor imprisonment. According to a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, it is illegal to incarcerate someone who is unable to pay, but that is what happens in some cases of incarceration for failure to pay child support.

In our next post, we'll continue looking at this issue.

Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution, "'Deadbeat' parents caught in a debtor's prison," Bill Rankin, 24 Jan 2011.

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