The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on a child support case this summer makes states responsible for determining which parents owing back child support should be jailed. The high court refused to change the practice some states follow of imprisoning delinquent parents without allowing them to speak to a lawyer.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision ordered state courts to use “procedural safeguards” to find out whether non-custodial parents are avoiding support payments on purpose or whether they are just too poor to pay past-due child support. Child support reform groups contend states indiscriminately jail parents who have no means to comply with support orders.

Federal laws governing child support are few, but one law stipulates that only delinquent parents who “willfully” refuse to pay support should be imprisoned. Some family-law courts are being taken to task for ignoring the reasons non-custodial parents do not make their court-ordered support payments.

One state is the target of a class-action lawsuit by parents who want to force laws to change. The parents’ lawsuit requests that parents charged with contempt of a child-support order have court-appointed legal representatives. The American Bar Association already supports the idea of court-appointed lawyers for low-income people in court over fundamental human needs issues.

The Urban Institute estimates that about 25 percent of the nation’s children, about 17 million, are dependent on child support. The Institute discovered that an average of 1.7 percent of the entire U.S. jail population in 2002 was made up of parents who owed child support.

Source: MSNBC, “Unable to pay child support, poor parents land behind bars,” Mike Brunker, Sept. 12, 2011