New Justice Department Report’s Recommendations Could Reduce Prisoner Recidivism

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

Ex–cons and “deadbeat dads” are two of society’s least favorite groups. As a result, it’s hard to formulate and implement reasonable policies and laws concerning the two. A new Department of Justice study on reducing prisoner recidivism focuses on an important but little–mentioned problem ex–offenders face—the crushing child support debts which accrued while they were behind bars. Upon release, child support enforcement agencies attempt to collect huge arrearages—sometimes $20,000 or more—out of dead broke, unskilled, and uneducated ex–offenders.

Since interest and penalties accrue rapidly, many former prisoners struggle under a staggering debt they will never 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 low wage lawful jobs, 40 or 50% or more of their paychecks are garnished to pay the debt. The costs of these crimes and of re–incarcerating the ex–offenders vastly outweigh the puny sums states collect in back child support.

Moreover, these debts often make it impossible for ex–offenders—many of whom are young mothers and fathers who were incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses—to play a meaningful role in their children’s lives. And prisoners pay for their crimes with their time behind bars—these debts often amount to a punishment artificially extended beyond their sentences.

The new report, Repaying Debts, was commissioned by the Justice Department and produced by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center. It makes some useful recommendations, including capping payments at 20% of an ex–offender’s income and streamlining the collection process. However, the Report’s recommendations are insufficient, and reflect the political realities facing ex–offenders and child support obligors.

For example, the Report recommends that, if the custodial parent concurs, states should attempt to modify child support orders downward while the offender is incarcerated. Yet this concurrence isn’t legally needed, and custodial parents should not be granted a veto. Child support is based on income—if prisoners have no income, they should not be held responsible for child support.

Moreover, most of these debts are not owed to custodial parents, but instead to states to reimburse the cost of public assistance or foster care for the offender’s children. States have the power to forgive these debts at their discretion, but usually choose not to. This needs to change.

Unfortunately, numerous legislative attempts to resolve the issue have been defeated, often through demagoguery. For example, in 2005, the California Assembly Republican Caucus helped defeat a modest reform bill, with one leading Republican Assemblyman explaining, “The state should never aid and abet a convicted criminal in avoiding child support.”

Fixing this problem has nothing to do with helping criminals. It instead acknowledges the obvious—parents who are unable to work are unable to pay. All of us want ex–offenders to return to legal employment instead of crime. The Justice Department’s new report demonstrates that one important way to reduce recidivism is to end the child support system abuses these ex–offenders face.