Pittsburg Post-Gazette

Lawrence County judges free 37 child-support offenders

Thursday, September 12, 2002
By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bowing to pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, Lawrence County judges yesterday released 37 defendants who had been jailed without hearings for not paying court-ordered child support.

Philip Boudewyns, Lawrence County court administrator, said all those in Lawrence County who were incarcerated for nonsupport after being held in civil contempt were released on orders of President Judge Ralph D. Pratt.

"After the president judge reviewed the cases of these 37 individuals, he decided to release them in order to maintain their civil liberties," Boudewyns said yesterday.

He said the nonsupport cases will be referred back to the county's domestic relations office, where attorneys can file new civil contempt charges against the defendants if they believe charges are warranted.

If new charges are filed, Boudewyns said, the cases will be handled under revised procedures. Each defendant will be brought before a judge for a hearing, where he can either clear himself of the contempt or offer explanations for being in arrears with payments. In the past, defendants in child support disputes in Lawrence County were being jailed without hearings or access to legal counsel.

Court officials immediately notified Witold Walczak, executive director of the Pittsburgh ACLU chapter, who had threatened to sue them for violating the constitutional rights of the men in the nonsupport cases.

"This is an essential first step to keep this dispute out of litigation, and we are pleased that the judges are taking it," said Walczak, who visited Lawrence County last week to discuss the county's methods for handling support issues.

He said an unresolved issue is whether Lawrence County judges will appoint lawyers to handle civil contempt issues involving child support. When he met with the judges last week, Walczak told them the law is clear in that anyone facing imprisonment is constitutionality entitled to a lawyer in civil and criminal procedures.

Boudewyns said the judges still are reviewing that issue. Until their review is complete, he said, no lawyers will be appointed for defendants who are accused of not paying child support.

Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.