Criminalizing Fathers Who Can’t Pay Child Support Makes the Problem Worse

man behind bars or in jail

For years there has been a push to deal harshly with so-called deadbeat father.  One way that officials attempted to deal with that has been by criminalizing the failure to pay child support.   But, more and more, it has become apparent that such approaches make the problem worse – not better.

In this new era of reform, one thing that newly-elected DA of St. Louis County, Wesley Bell, has done is reverse previous policies.

Mr. Bell, a former member of Ferguson’s City Council but also a former public defender, ran for DA last year on a platform of progressive reform that sought to address policies that drive mass incarceration.  He stunned many by defeating seven-term incumbent Robert McCullough – best known as the prosecutor who declined to charge Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Among the first things that Mr. Bell did was fire the veteran prosecutor who presented the Grand Jury evidence in the Michael Brown case.  But flying more under the radar was his proposal to end prosecutions for nonpayment of child support, according to an article last week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The policy states that the office “will not criminally prosecute the failure to pay child support” and prosecutors “will not issue criminal cases or apply for summons or warrants for failure to pay child support.”

Prosecutors, in pending cases, will not proceed with cases or “attempt to accept any plea/finding of guilt for any felony or misdemeanor failure to pay child support, regardless of amount of arrears, without written approval from a supervisor.”

Immediately the local police union complained about the policy decriminalizing the nonpayment. 

They issued a statement saying they were “disappointed” and “discouraged” and argued, “The decriminalization of failure to pay child support puts livelihoods of hardworking single parents in jeopardy, and more alarming, the abolishment of warrants of all D and E Class Felony offenses places the citizens of St. Louis County at risk for repeat victimization.”

But Wesley Bell fired back.  He pointed out that the criminalization of nonpayment can make it even harder for parents under a child support order to make payments.

“When you have two people applying for a job who are similarly situated, and one has a felony conviction even if it’s just for child support, we’d be lying if we said that didn’t hurt people’s chances of being successful at getting a job,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Nor, Bell pointed out, does it help custodial parents. “They don’t want the noncustodial parent to go to jail. They just want the support,” he said.

“We are going to address this issue that is not being punitive because someone cannot pay or does not have financial means,” said Mr. Bell in an interview with a local TV station.  He pointed out that the new approach is similar with the rest of Missouri. He said most counties criminally prosecute about a dozen non-support cases a year.  In St. Louis that number was 530 a year compared to 40 a year in the city of St. Louis (which is not a part of a county).

There is a fair amount of research on this issue. A study from 2006 that look at nine states, found that 70 percent of those ordered to pay child support are poor. The Urban Institute found that the average child support obligation constitutes over 80 percent of the parents’ income.

Under President Obama, the problem of child support obligations on parents unable to pay, particularly those unable to pay because they are incarcerated, received national attention.  Governing, the Washington, D.C., nonpartisan magazine, reported that “states were increasingly imposing payment obligations without regard to parents’ financial situations. This trend was contributing to the cycle of incarceration that can plague people in poverty. When parents go to jail — in many cases, because of their inability to pay child support — they accumulate debt that awaits them. Once they’re released, it may not be long before they’re back behind bars if they continue to miss child support payments.”

Over 20 percent of those in prison have child support obligations.  The Urban Institute found that debt “disproportionately harms low-income fathers” and “noncustodial fathers are disproportionately black.”

In 2015, The Marshall Project ran an expose on child support becoming a crushing debt for men in prison and ironically focused their story on Ferguson.

The article notes, that “For most, the debt will keep piling up throughout their imprisonment: By law or by practice, child support agencies in much of the country consider incarceration a form of ‘voluntary impoverishment.’”

The Obama administration “authorized a new set of regulations that would reclassify incarceration as “involuntary,” giving parents the right to push the pause button on child support payments.”

Basically that stopped the clock where they were in prison and unable to earn money.

Republicans opposed the measure, however, arguing it would undercut the 1996 welfare reform act.

“I am fundamentally opposed to policies that allow parents to abdicate their responsibilities, which, in turn, results in more families having to go on welfare,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said in 2015.

However, the Trump administration has thus far allowed the measure to stay in place.  The White House has expressed support for a requirement that agencies notify child support agencies when someone leaves prison so that child support requirements go back into effect.

The problem here is that criminal convictions downwardly impact a person’s ability to get a job.  Therefore, prosecuting fathers for failure to pay child support only further depresses their ability to pay by further reducing their chances to get a job.

Wesley Bell’s polices for St. Louis County, therefore, reflect the understanding that children benefit from noncustodial parents having the ability to earn and make payments.

“I don’t believe in debtors’ prisons,” Wesley Bell said. “And opportunities are lost by felony convictions. We want people to have good paying jobs so they can take care of their families.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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