The United States Supreme Court just ruled that an individual facing civil commitment for failure to pay child support doesn’t not have an automatic right to a lawyer.
“The 14th Amendment’s due process clause allows a state to provide fewer procedural protections to civil contempt defendants than in a criminal case, which is governed by the Sixth Amendment,” said Justice Stephen Breyer.
As someone who has arrested and caused the imprisonment of quite a few people for child support warrants, two questions always floated in my mind.
First, it costs a county roughly $30,000 a year to imprison someone. That’s about $82 a day. During this time the individual obviously cannot work, find work, or do anything productive. The children the individual is supposed to be supporting isn’t receiving any money either. Wouldn’t that $82/day better be spent feeding, clothing, or housing a child?
Second, civil commitment for child support really is a debtor prison. Didn’t this country allegedly abolished them in the 1800′s?
Wikipedia entry for Debtor's Prison, United States:
In 1833 the United States abolished Federal imprisonment for unpaid debts, and most states outlawed the practice around the same time. Before then, the use of debtor's prisons was widespread; signatories to the Declaration of Independence, James Wilson and Robert Morris were both later incarcerated, as were 2,000 New Yorkers annually by 1816. Henry Lee III, better known as Light-Horse Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War general, former governor of Virginia, and father of Robert E. Lee, was imprisoned for debt between 1808 and 1809. Sometimes, imprisonment would result from less than sixty cents' worth of debt.
Six states (Arkansas, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Washington) allow debt collectors to seek arrest warrants for debtors in default if all other collection methods have failed. Whether a debtor will actually be prosecuted or not varies from state to state, county to county, and town to town. The individual is taken into custody and is typically required to submit financial documentation to the courts (to facilitate seizure of assets or wage garnishment), although in some cases the individual may be held indefinitely until a payment plan is reached or the debt is paid in full, especially if the individual is insolvent. Other states have outlawed this type of collection action (Tennessee and Oklahoma have ruled it unconstitutional). unless the court finds that the debtor actually possesses the means to pay—except in the case of child support obligations.
Most state constitutions, including Minnesota's, have clauses dating to the 1850s that expressly prohibit the jailing of people for their debts.  Some people make the claim that it is unconstitutional in the United States to incarcerate someone solely for failing to pay a debt. However, there is little settled law on this matter and plenty of precedent for de facto debtors' prisons.