The underlying facts are awful. South Carolina is not the only state to have a modern debtors’ prison. Men are being locked up, sometimes for long stints, for not paying child support. There are certainly far too many deadbeat dads in this country, and imprisoning a solvent scofflaw father, but with due process, is an acceptable way to put on the squeeze. But that’s not what’s happening. Men who simply can’t pay or have other defenses are being jailed without having had a fair chance to put forward their side of the story.
The underlying issue is poverty, of course, and poverty has a long list of terrible consequences, including the heart of how the criminal justice system works, and much more. In this case, the poverty means the man can’t pay no matter what we do to him and also can’t afford a lawyer to make the case for him. I have to wonder whether the majority (forget the other four) gets it. And these five are the good “guys.”
Okay, so they say there’s a better case for giving the defendant a lawyer when the state is the plaintiff. That helps. But it doesn’t deal with this case. Yes, there’s an imbalance when the mother is not represented but, then again, she’s not at risk of being sent to jail. To say that alternative measures would even the playing field is not to understand the world of trying to navigate the court system without a lawyer. We and can should do everything we can to make pro se representation somewhat less disastrous but, face it, it’s not the same. I have to wonder whether they get it.
So there’s an inch or two of progress here, but they could have done better. For now, anyway, it places a responsibility on all of us who work on access-to-justice issues, including access to justice commissions like the one I chair in Washington, D.C., to redouble our efforts to get more funding for lawyers and our advocacy for every possible step to ameliorate the hazards of pro se representation. But all of that is not the real way to run the railroad.