Are you broke? Unemployed? Got warrants? Pay child support maybe?

I just read over at Electronic Village that the mother of Mychal Bell of Jena 6 fame was recently arrested for non-payment of child support. Before I go on with this post, I want you folks to know that Electronic Village is a blog that you should visit at least once a day. My man the Villager stays on point with current events within the community. In his blog it was asked if women pay child support or are issued court ordered to pay child support. The answer is yes. Now I don’t know the circumstances surrounding this woman’s non-payment of support, but I wouldn’t be surprised that people are going to jail in record numbers for non-payment given the economic downturn.

I mean why not; people are losing homes as a result of loss of employment, no? Am I suggesting that this was the case of Mychal Bell’s mom? No I’m not because I don’t know the extenuating circumstances of her situation. However, I do know that people are going to jail for being poor. Now Evander Holyfield on the other hand? He’s rich, and not like the people this blog speaks about. Matter of fact, if anything his situation makes me question why we never hear about rich or wealthy White celebrities with issues like his.
“Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped get her out last week after she spent 28 days behind bars, says it is seeing more people being sent to jail because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional.

Despite her inability to pay, she was held in contempt of court and ordered to serve a 30-day sentence. On March 6, three days after she was incarcerated, she was released for one day to work. She also picked up her paycheck, in the amount of $178.53. This, she thought, could be used to pay the $104, and she would be released from jail.

But when she got back to the jail, the sheriff told her to sign her check over to the county–to pay $120 for her own room and board, and $22 for a drug test and booking fee.
Even more absurd, Nowlin requested but was denied a court-appointed lawyer. So because she was too poor to afford a lawyer and denied her constitutional right to have the court provide one for her, she couldn’t fight the contempt charge that stemmed from her poverty. And her contempt conviction only added to her poverty, as the fines and fees she was obligated to pay now multiplied.

“Like many people in these desperate economic times, Ms. Nowlin was laid off from work, lost her home and is destitute,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan ACLU. “Jailing her because of her poverty is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources. It is not a crime to be poor in this country, and the government must stop resurrecting debtor’s prisons from the dustbin of history.” – sourceNow, that’s just one instance, but wouldn’t it stand to reason that with Blacks and other minorities bearing the worst of this economic recession, that they stand to be more likely to go to jail for non-payment of child support and other court ordered fines? Well RiPPa there are some deadbeats out there. True, but doesn’t the economic climate receive any consideration in cases such as these? Well yeah but the bad economy thing is somewhat of an anomaly RiPPa. Also true, but hasn’t the unemployment rate for Blacks always has been double that of non-minorities? Obviously they didn’t do that for that woman in Michigan. And I’ll say that in my opinion Child Support payments should be restricted to couples in divorce proceedings only.
In 2006, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed a suit on behalf of Ora Lee Hurley, who couldn’t get out of prison until she had enough money to pay a $705 fine. But she couldn’t pay the fine because she had to pay the Georgia Department of Corrections $600 a month for room and board, and spend $76 a month on public transportation, laundry and food.

She was released five days a week to work at the K&K Soul Food restaurant, where she earned $6.50 an hour, which netted her about $700 a month after taxes. Hurley was trapped in prison for eight months beyond her initial 120-day sentence until the Southern Center intervened. Over the course of her incarceration, she earned about $7,000, but she never had enough at one time to pay off her $705 fine.

“This is a situation where if this woman was able to write a check for the amount of the fine, she would be out of there,” Sarah Geraghty, a SCHR lawyer, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution while Hurley was still imprisoned. “And because she can’t, she’s still in custody. It’s as simple as that.”

Georgia also lets for-profit probation companies prey on people too poor to pay their traffic violations and court fees.Now isn’t that crazy? According to a 2008 SCHR report entitled “Profiting from the poor”:
In courts around Georgia, people who are charged with misdemeanors and cannot pay their fines that day in court are placed on probation under the supervision of private, for-profit companies until they pay off their fines. On probation, they must pay these companies substantial monthly “supervision fees” that may double or triple the amount that a person of means would pay for the same offense.

For example, a person of means may pay $200 for a traffic ticket on the day of court and be done with it, while a person too poor to pay that day is placed on probation and ends up paying $500 or more for the same offense.

The privatization of misdemeanor probation has placed unprecedented law enforcement authority in the hands of for-profit companies that act essentially as collection agencies. These companies, focused on profit rather than public safety or rehabilitation, are not designed to supervise people or connect them to services and jobs. Rather, they charge exorbitant monthly fees and use the threat of imprisonment and a variety of bullying tactics to squeeze money out of the men and women under their supervision.

For too many poor people convicted of misdemeanors, our state is not living up to the constitutional promise of equal justice under law. In 1970, the Supreme Court ruled that it violates equal protection to keep inmates in prison extra time because they are too poor to pay a fine or court costs. More recently, the court ruled that a state generally cannot revoke a defendant’s probation and imprison him for failing to pay a fine if he is unable to do so.

Having said that, doesn’t it seem wrong to imprison someone for non-payment of court ordered child support? How come it isn’t a crime punishable by jail time to default on your credit card payments or even be a victim of foreclosure, but yet you can go to jail or prison for non-payment of child support? Sure you might say that the court system has a vested interest in the welfare of the children, but is that exactly true?

Until a few years ago, the police in Gulfport, Miss., regularly did sweeps of the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, identified people with unpaid fines (warrants), and put them in jail. Defendants who could not pay were forced to remain there until they “sat off” their fines. The city ended the practice after it was sued. So, in closing I’ll ask: is this justice, or is it just slavery by another name?

Visit the Southern Center for Human Rights for more info.

Recommended reading: & The New Debtors’ Prisons