The judges will review the cases of 40 people jailed without hearings.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- After a meeting with attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, Lawrence County judges have agreed to make some changes in how they treat people accused of not following child support orders.
Philip Boudewyns, court administrator, said the county's four judges will no longer order jail time for people who miss support payments until those people appear at a hearing.
Witold Walczak, executive director of ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, and James Mahood, an attorney volunteering with the ACLU, met the judges Friday afternoon after discovering that about 40 people were in Lawrence County Jail for civil contempt but hadn't been allowed access to attorneys or given a hearing.
According to the ACLU, the county's policy for someone found guilty of once having failed to pay child support is to essentially give them a suspended sentence, usually for six months. If a payment is missed again, the person is arrested for contempt of court and the suspended sentence goes into effect.
ACLU officials say they are concerned that some of those people were not given hearings after missing payment for the second time and they did not have legal counsel.
Boudewyns said court hearings for all contempt cases are scheduled, but some people do not show up. He added that it is the position of the county judges that they do not have to provide attorneys for people in civil court.
What was decided
The court administrator said that the judges have now agreed to make sure everyone in contempt appears at a hearing before going to jail. They plan to review information supplied by the ACLU concerning a person's right to have an attorney at those hearings, but have not agreed to change their policy, he said.
Walczak said the judges will also review by Wednesday the cases of all 40 people in the Lawrence County Jail now on contempt charges for nonpayment of support.
Boudewyns said some may be released and others may be given hearings.
Walczak said the ACLU isn't immediately planning to file a lawsuit against the county, but will instead wait to see if the county's policies change after next week.
Walczak said the ACLU got involved after receiving complaints from Lawrence County residents about the jailing policy. He said there was a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May that said a suspended sentence could not be activated if a person did not have a hearing.
"We were on the lookout for these types of cases and we got a few calls from Lawrence County. We quickly found out that nobody here seemed to have had a hearing," Walczak said.
Walczak said Allegheny and Erie counties have policies that ensure people found in contempt appear at hearings and are provided legal counsel, but not all counties have similar policies.
"Ideally the state Supreme Court will make an administrative decision on this matter and all counties will have to follow it," he said.