The judges are still trying to decide if the county must provide attorneys for those charged with contempt.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Thirty-seven people jailed in Lawrence County for not following child-support orders were released because of the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Lawrence County President Judge Ralph D. Pratt signed an order Wednesday releasing them because they had not appeared before a judge before being placed in jail on contempt charges.
The problem was brought to the attention of the county courts last week by the ACLU's Greater Pittsburgh Chapter.
Witold Walczak, executive director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, said the county has been giving suspended sentences, usually for six months, to those found guilty of not paying child support.
If a payment is missed again, the person is arrested on contempt-of-court charges and the sentence goes into effect.
ACLU officials contend those people should appear before a judge before getting locked up and are entitled to an attorney.
The county's four common pleas judges agreed, after a meeting with Walczak on Sept. 6, to provide hearings for all people arrested on contempt-of-court charges.
"We are pleased with today's actions. It was an essential first step to avoid litigation. The issue remains for the judges to decide whether they will appoint counsel for indigent, nonsupport defendants before sending them to jail," Walczak said.
Type of proceedings
The judges are still researching the need for the courts to provide an attorney, said Philip Boudewyns, court administrator. County officials have maintained that these are civil proceedings and the county is not required to provide attorneys in civil matters, only criminal.
Boudewyns noted that some of the 37 people jailed on domestic-related contempt charges will remain there if they have other criminal charges pending. Others will be released with the condition that they give a home address and telephone number, he said.
That information will be passed to county domestic relations, which may pursue new contempt charges because of nonpayment of child support, he said. All will appear before a judge if the charges are refiled, he added.
Boudewyns noted that some of the 37 did get notices to appear at hearings for the first set of contempt charges but did not show up.
"The new policy will require them to physically appear before sentencing," he said.
Walczak said he plans to follow up on three other people the ACLU thinks were jailed without hearings.
Walczak said the ACLU will not take legal action until or unless the county resumes imprisoning people without a hearing or an appointed lawyer.
"One of the things people need to keep in mind is, perhaps some of these folks released today deserve legally to be in jail; others don't. And that's why you need hearings and the assistance of counsel to sort out the facts and to ensure just results," he said.