Schwarzenegger Should Sign Bill to Reduce Prisoner Recidivism

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

With AB 862 California Democrats are promoting a common sense way to reduce prisoner recidivism and facilitate ex-offenders’ reintegration into society. By contrast, the California State Assembly Republican Caucus has chosen to play politics. Governor Schwarzenegger has until October 8 to put sound government over partisanship by signing the bill.

AB 862, introduced by Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), adds a section to the Penal Code which would require that upon incarceration, every inmate under the authority of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation receive materials assisting them in lowering their child support obligations. Currently inmates–many of them mothers incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses–rack up thousands of dollars in child support arrearages while they are incarcerated. The vast majority of these arrearages are not owed to custodial parents, but instead to the state to reimburse welfare and foster care costs.

Everybody loses under the current system. The state tries in vain to beat huge arrearages–sometimes $20,000 or more–out of dead broke, unskilled, and uneducated ex-offenders. Because interest and penalties accrue rapidly, many former prisoners struggle under a staggering debt they could never hope to pay off. Some return to jail because of nonpayment of child support. Others are re-incarcerated after turning to illegal activity to support themselves, because at their low wage legal jobs 40 or 50% of their paychecks are garnished to pay their arrearages and current support. For ex-offenders interested in and capable of playing a meaningful role in their children’s lives, these debts often make such a role impossible.

In all cases, the costs of the crimes committed and of re-incarcerating the ex-offenders vastly outweigh the puny sums the state collects in back child support. According to former California State Controller Kathleen Connell, the average annual cost of state-level incarceration in California is $21,000 per prisoner. By contrast, AB 862's total cost to the state is only $80,000 a year.

The current system is also unfair to ex-offenders. Child support is based on income and the ability to pay. Incarcerated parents have neither. Prisoners pay for their crimes with their time behind bars and should not be subject to other punishments which are artificially extended beyond their sentences.

The only way inmates with child support obligations can avoid this problem is by getting downward modifications or complete abatements upon entering prison. This is because the federal Bradley Amendment bars judges from retroactively modifying or forgiving child support arrearages, even when they determine that the arrearage occurred because of the obligor’s inability to pay. AB 862 helps insure that these arrearages don’t accrue.

Despite the obvious need for reform, change has been slow because it benefits two of society’s most disliked groups–ex-offenders and "deadbeat" parents. While states such as New York and North Carolina have enacted sensible measures to address prisoner arrearages, similar legislation introduced in California in 2002 died a quick death in committee.

The problem of putting politics before common sense on this issue continues with AB 862. The Assembly Republican Caucus recently issued a statement condemning the bill, and is pressuring Governor Schwarzenegger to veto it. Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, (R-Orange) said "The state should never aid and abet a convicted criminal in avoiding child support."

But AB 862 has nothing to do with aiding and abetting criminals. It instead acknowledges the obvious–parents who are unable to work are unable to pay. AB 862 will help ex-offenders do what society needs and wants them to do–return to legal employment instead of crime.

California Republican Assemblyman Todd Spitzer was unhappy with our criticism of him in this column and published a blistering response on a news website. In it he claims to be "outraged" by our commentary and accuses us of coddling deadbeats and criminals. We originally linked to Spitzer's piece but it is apparently no longer available on the web.

  • Riverside Press-Enterprise
  • Daily Breeze (Los Angeles, California)