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POST: Ohio is incorrectly listed among the states that do not provide legal counsel for poor defendants in child-support contempt proceedings. We relied on information in a U.S. Supreme Court brief, but it turns out that while the Ohio Supreme Court ruled there is no constitutional right to counsel, the state has since enacted a law providing counsel.]

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The Supreme Court hears a case today testing whether indigent fathers who fail to make child-support payments may be jailed for as much as one year at a time without being provided a lawyer. Most states do provide counsel for deadbeat dads too poor to afford legal help. But a few do not, including Florida, Georgia, Maine, Ohio and South Carolina. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Go to any shelter for homeless families, and you'll find children who would not be there but for the fact that their deadbeat dads did not pay child support.

Go to Family Court and you'll find indigent dads, with no job and no lawyer, being taken away in handcuffs because they couldn't pay the child support they owed.

Deadbeat parents, usually dads, have long been a conundrum for the law. Today's case comes from South Carolina, where Michael Turner, the indigent father of a child, was sentenced to a year in jail for failing to pay child support.

He could've gotten out of jail earlier by paying the nearly $6,000 he owed. But with no money and no job, he couldn't make the payment and served the full 12 months.

The sentence was neither the first nor the last that Turner served for failure to pay. Because the mother of his child received welfare for a period of time, she initially had to assign her right to child support to the state, which automatically went to court whenever Turner was in arrears, which he repeatedly was - meaning he was repeatedly sent to jail. Indeed, he was in jail in January, and could go back in May.

The lawyers who now represent Turner pro bono in the U.S. Supreme Court contend that he was jailed, in effect, for being too poor - that in South Carolina and other jurisdictions like it, the system that sends deadbeat dads to jail without a lawyer is a modern form of debtor's prison.

Turner's ex, Rebecca Rogers, maintains that there is no need for a lawyer in these cases since court proceedings usually turn on simple, factual issues of payment history. And the nonpaying parent has the keys to his jail cell - he can get out any time he pays up.

Backed by South Carolina, she points out that during one period of time, Turner bought drugs for himself instead of paying what he owed. She says that the only thing that's produced any money at all from Turner is the prospect of jail, noting that on four occasions he has paid hundreds - though not close to the thousands - of dollars he owes, in an effort to avoid jail.

Both sides cite the research work of Elaine Sorensen, of the Urban Institute, author of an article called "Deadbeats and Turnips in Child Support Reform." Deadbeats are parents who could but don't pay. Turnips are ones who can't - as in, you can't get blood out of a turnip. So what percentage of non-paying parents are deadbeat, and what percentage are turnips? Sorensen says most of those who end up in jail are low-income.

D: That's who tends to be the noncompliant. They're more likely to be a turnip than a deadbeat.

TOTENBERG: The legal issue here, at its core, is whether - and in what circumstances - the state can deprive an individual of his liberty without providing him a lawyer. The Supreme Court has long held that those facing criminal charges, including criminal contempt of court, are entitled to a lawyer. The Constitution provides that in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall not be deprived of his liberty without the assistance of counsel.

But deadbeat parents are cited for civil contempt of court, not criminal contempt. So the question today is whether long jail terms for civil contempt amount to criminal punishment.

Turner's ex and the state says no - that families have an interest in simple, swift and informal procedures so that fathers cannot flout their obligations and leave their children destitute. Turner's pro-bono lawyers counter that appearing in court without a lawyer in a proceeding like this, is like climbing a mountain without legs. It can be done, but not easily. They point to statistics showing that in South Carolina, some 13 percent of the county jail population consists of deadbeat dads, and that 98 percent of them did not have lawyers. A decision in this case is expected by summer.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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