Pay child support while in prison or else
Thursday, May 9, 2002

California Child Support Bill Will Help Newly
Released Prisoners Rebuild Their Lives
by Glenn Sacks

"I've been an addict of one kind or another since I was a boy" says Pierre
Williams, who has spent the last 20 years in and out of prison while
battling his drug addiction.  "The past year is about the only time in my
life I've been clean, and I like it.  I've spent most of my kids' lives
holding their hands through prison bars. I'm living close to them now, I'm
getting a straight job, and I want to be a part of their lives."

Williams was crushed when he recently learned that he owes $12,000 in
child support arrearages to reimburse the state for the benefits paid to
his wife and kids while he was in prison.  The support arrearages, which
he never knew existed, will consume as much as half of Williams' modest
salary, virtually destroying the possibility of the new, stable life that
the 42 year-old East Palo Alto resident had dreamed of behind bars.

Williams is one of tens of thousands of California men and women who have
been charged child support and interest while they were incarcerated, and
who struggle under staggering debt as they attempt to reintegrate into
society.  The debts drive many recently released prisoners out of their
children's lives and into the underground economy or illegal activity.
Elena Ackel, senior attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles,

"The wonder of the current system is that everybody loses. The state tries
to beat astronomical child support arrearages--$20,000 or $30,000 in many
cases--out of dead broke, unskilled, and unemployed people who just got
out of prison. Some of these people even end up back in jail because they
couldn't pay the child support which accrued while they were in jail.  Who
benefits from this?"

Earlier this year Los Angeles Assemblyman Rod Wright introduced sensible
legislation into the California State Assembly to solve the problem.
Assembly Bill 2245 provides for a stay of a support order when a person
owing support is incarcerated for more than 30 consecutive days.  In
addition, the bill establishes incarceration for 90 days or more as a
"change of circumstances" upon which a support modification motion may be
based, and it sets up machinery to help prisoners file their support
paperwork. The Assembly Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin hearing
testimony on the bill on May 14.

The bill is a sensible measure to reform shortsighted policies which focus
on recouping the cost of state-sponsored family assistance programs and
ignore the potentially greater cost of criminal recidivism.  According to
California State Controller Kathleen Connell, the average annual cost of
state-level incarceration in California is $21,000 per prisoner. Thus it
makes no sense to risk pushing ex-convicts back into crime in order to
collect child support money which many low-income former prisoners will
never be able to pay anyway.

Dianna Thompson of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, who
will be testifying in favor of the bill in Sacramento on May 14, says that
the policy also ignores the fact that "child support is supposed to be
based on income and the ability to pay.  If you don't and can't have an
income, child support should reflect that."

Thompson adds that the current policy is irrational, because it "creates a
condition during an inmate's incarceration which often leads them to being
re-incarcerated--even though they haven't committed a crime."

Changing the policy is difficult, because reforms benefit two of society's
most disliked groups, ex-convicts and "dead beat" parents.  While states
such as North Carolina (whose legislation AB 2245 is modeled upon) and
New York have enacted sensible measures to address the problem, California
Governor Gray Davis vetoed a child support amnesty bill two years ago.

For people like Williams, it is like being punished all over again.

"I make no excuses for what I've done--the burglaries and petty crimes I
committed to support my drug addictions, and the fact that I was unable to
support my wife and kids," he says. "But I've also paid my debt to society
with many hard years in prison. Now I want to do something positive for
myself and for my kids. Why are they doing everything they can to stop me?"

Copyright  2001 - 2002.  Glenn Sacks  All Rights Reserved.
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