Indigent deadbeat parents to be freed
Appeal fails to scuttle ruling requiring state to represent the poor or release them from jail Saturday, September 27, 2003
BY ROBERT SCHWANEBERG Star-Ledger Staff

Because they were denied a court-appointed lawyer, poor persons who have been locked up for failing to pay child support could soon see their jail doors swing open.

Winnie Comfort, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said yesterday that probation officers have begun interviewing persons jailed for non- payment of child support to determine whether they are indigent, or too poor to afford their own lawyers. Those who qualify as indigent will be released, she said.

Those interviews stem from Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg’s ruling last May that poor persons facing the threat of incarceration have a right to a court-appointed lawyer. That left the state with a choice: provide lawyers to represent poor people accused of being deadbeat parents or remove the threat of jail.

Comfort said “there’s no counsel to appoint” because no pool of lawyers has been established to provide such legal representation. As a result, she said, the Administrative Office of the Court issued new procedures that forbid judges statewide from jailing indigent persons until they pay the child support they owe.

An emergency bid by the Attorney General’s Office to put those procedures on hold was turned down by a state appeals court late Thursday. Chuck Davis, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said it continues to believe Feinberg’s ruling is wrong and has asked an appeals court to overturn it.

David Perry Davis, the Princeton lawyer who won the ruling giving poor deadbeat parents the right to a court-appointed lawyer, predicted that hundreds of them could be released from jail as a result. Both Comfort and Davis said they could not put a figure on how many persons might be freed.

Davis said most people in jail for failing to pay child support simply do not have the money. He said the new policy will not help the few who do.

“If you have the money and won’t pay, throw them in jail until they pay. That’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Davis said. “But throwing people in jail who can’t pay does nothing.”

Davis said Feinberg’s ruling brings New Jersey in line with 46 other states that give indigent persons facing jail for failing to pay child support the right to a court- appointed lawyer. He added that those states do no worse in collecting child support.

Comfort said the new policy does not prohibit persons who are arrested for non-payment of child support from being briefly jailed until a judge can hear their cases and determine whether they are indigent.

Robert Schwaneberg covers legal issues. He can be reached at rschwaneberg@starledger.com or (609) 989-0324.