Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Divorced dad hunger striker, my thoughts

Posted By on May 19, 2010, 8:22 AM

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The response to my blog post yesterday about a dad's hunger strike from jail that he began as a protest of the child support system has been fast and sometimes furious. ---Commenters have mostly focussed on whether the dad is deadbeat or a saint, which is not the debate that I feel is most important. So, I probably should have told you yesterday that the judge who put this man in jail is the same judge who last year jailed a woman for sending text messages from the audience in his court room.

Tooele's 3rd District Judge Stephen Henroid was much maligned nationally for jailing a woman accused of text messaging in his court room. Not until the initial media tsunami had passed over the situation, however, did we learn that Henroid suspected the woman of texting her husband information about property that was to be seized as a part of the court proceeding that she was observing. Simply put, Henroid suspected her of cheating, not merely sending a text message.

Nevertheless, I bring up the text messaging case to make two points. One, like the divorced-dad Kenyon Eastin that I wrote about yesterday, the accused text messager was not represented by a defense attorney prior to being incarcerated and she was not provided a jury of her peers to decide her innocence or guilt. Both of those are guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, but those rights are tempered by judges' legal authority to incarcerate for contempt of court.

The second point is that the Tooele County Jail is jam-packed--mass incarceration is a pressing national issue--and may have to release prisoners early to avoid increasing taxes on county residents to pay for a bigger jail. Is jail the only way Henroid could get Eastin to pay his child support? What about forcing him to do community service that benefits single-mothers whose fathers don't pay child support at all?

This isn't the first case of a judge incarcerating a parent for unpaid child support without providing either a defense attorney or jury to the accused.

"It happens every day, all day long," says Sacramento-based Donald Tenn of Fathers for Justice, who travels the country observing these cases. "We should have a jury of our peers. That's our Constitutional right, and yet it's being denied everyday, all day long."

This issue is further complicated, many believe, in that the process of seeking child support from a divorced parent necessarily drains the person of economic resources, lowering their ability to hire their own attorney. Incarcerating them takes them away from their jobs, exacerbating that situation. As the years pass, and debts in arrears accumulate, the person's ability to hire their own legal counsel dwindles.

So why does it not matter to me whether Eastin is deadbeat or saintly? Because the Constitution provides rights. Regardless of whether he's a good guy or a bad one, the Constitution protects him. But did it protect him in this situation? Should it? Does incarcerating him without providing him an attorney or jury "insure domestic Tranquility" better than alternatives?

Neither Tenn, nor anyone else that I'm aware of, can provide data on how many parents--fathers usually--are incarcerated for unpaid child support without first being afforded their 6th Amendment rights. If you have the data, help me out in comments.

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Jesse Fruhwirth

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