The following opinion editorial appeared in today’s Savannah Morning News and was published on

LOCKING UP parents for failing to pay child support makes as much sense as running a debtors’ prison.

That’s why Chatham County’s decision to begin a work-release pilot program for Savannah area residents who are behind on their court-ordered payments is a smart, humane step.

Putting someone in a crowded jail with no way to earn money does nothing for the immediate need to get funds into the pockets of custodial parents to care for their children.

If anything, it makes it almost impossible for the non-custodial parent to find work. This practice also takes up needed jail space, which should be reserved for dangerous criminals.

And for those non-custodial parents who do have a job, missing time off work because of a jail sentence could mean getting fired.

Pink slips don’t solve payment problems.

Instead, Chatham County District Attorney Spencer Lawton Jr. said the goal of the work-release program is to provide parents with the structure and encouragement they need in order to get on the right track.

If the program successfully attains this worthy goal, it could work wonders not only for the financial stability of the children in question, but also for their emotional stability.

As non-custodial fathers drop the stigma of not being able to handle their responsibilities, many might be more willing to take a more active role in their children’s lives.

Another bonus will be the easing of strife over money between a child’s parents.

If successful, these two points in themselves will be strong arguments for the construction of a separate facility to house parents in the work-release program.

The prioritized list of potential projects for the 2003-2008 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax includes just such a structure. Should SPLOST proceeds permit, some $4 million will be allotted to the project.

The wisdom of keeping parents out of prison so they can earn money to pay child support does not, however, absolve people of responsible behavior.

Chatham County Commissioner Harris Odell has a good point when he says that many parents – usually men – who are delinquent on their payments might be willing to help support their children, but are unable to do so because they’re under-employed.

Mr. Odell’s example in support of his argument, however, undermines what sympathy many might have for fathers in this situation.

"A lot of times, what you have is people who have six or seven kids by six or seven people," Mr. Odellsaid. "So the person who’s making $9 an hour at the end of a 40-hour week, after child support, ends up taking home $50 a week."

The best answer in Mr. Odell’s example is not a work-release program, but a simple rule of thumb: If you make less than $19,000 a year, don’t have seven kids by seven women.

In the absence of that common-sense standard, however, the county’s work-release pilot program is a good first step in helping to heal families and improve the lives of children in single-parent homes.