ACLU Applauds Pennsylvania Court Decision to Appoint Lawyers for Poor People Facing Prison

June 9, 2004 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH — The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today applauded a decision by the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas to provide court-appointed lawyers to poor people facing jail-time for failing to make payments in child-support cases.

“”Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the court proceeding is civil or criminal or administrative, if it deprives someone of their liberty, that person has a constitutional right to be represented by a lawyer,”” said Pennsylvania ACLU Litigation Director Witold Walczak.

A Beaver County judge issued orders on Tuesday to release 18 men and one woman who had been illegally incarcerated without attorney representation for failure to pay child support. Beaver became the fifth county in Pennsylvania in the past twenty months to change their procedures in child support cases, under pressure from the ACLU.

“”We are pleased that Beaver County so readily agreed to change their practice when shown the law and to cooperate in releasing illegally detained prisoners,”” said David Millstein of the Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU who negotiated both the change in policy and the prisoners’ release. “”The cooperation and professionalism of the court, the court administrator and the domestic relations office was outstanding and greatly enhanced our efforts to make certain that the most disadvantaged members of our society are afforded all the protection provided by law.””

The ACLU’s effort to convince Pennsylvania judges to appoint counsel in child support cases began in August 2002, when it learned that 37 people were imprisoned in Lawrence County without having legal representation or the opportunity to contest the claims presented against them. After the ACLU threatened to sue Lawrence County, a court ordered the release of the 37 individuals in September 2002 and promised to begin appointing counsel for people who cannot afford to hire lawyers.

The ACLU negotiated similar policy changes and prisoner releases in Westmoreland, Erie and Montgomery Counties. The release in Montgomery involved nearly 100 people who had been unfairly incarcerated. In April 2004, the ACLU again had to intervene in Lawrence County to secure the release of approximately 20 prisoners. The incoming president judge has promised to permanently fix the problem.

“”We suspect that some counties still do not appoint counsel for people facing jail for failure to pay child support,”” Walczak said, noting that nearly 100 people in Berks County alone may be languishing in jail illegally.

“”Hopefully the commissioners and president judges in those counties will respond to the ACLU’s request with the same dispatch and cooperation that leaders in Beaver, Westmoreland, Lawrence, Erie and Montgomery showed,”” said Walczak. “”But if negotiations do not achieve the necessary result, we are prepared to file suit against any county that is in violation of the constitution.””

For more information on rights of the poor, see: /PoorRights/PoorRightsMain.cfm

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