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Reforming child support policies could improve California's prison system

by Wes Messamore, published

One major obstacle standing in the way of many California inmates looking to build new lives after finishing a lengthy prison sentence is an overwhelming backlog of unpaid child support obligations which state law requires them to pay-- with interest.  For obvious reasons, many low-income fathers are unable to earn a living while incarcerated, but like many US states, California still requires them to pay child support and charges them interest for missed payments for the duration of their time in prison.

Elena Ackel, of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, opines:

"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?"

Take the example of Pierre Williams. After spending twenty years in and out of California prisons as he battled with his addiction to drugs, Williams has finally seen a breakthrough in his struggle and spent an entire year sober. He even started a new job.

But Williams' hopes for a bright future and a stable life were dashed when he recently learned that he owed the state $12,000 in child support benefits that were paid to his wife and children while he was serving time. The unexpected new obligation could consume as much as half of Williams' income. It's stories like these that drive reformed ex-prisoners back into crime, or even directly to prison for being unable to pay their debt.

That's why Los Angeles Assemblyman Rod Wright introduced a bill earlier this year to allow prisoners incarcerated for more than 90 days to motion for a modification to their child support obligations due to their "change of circumstances."  Dianna Thompson of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children will be testifying in favor of the bill before the Assembly Judiciary Committee this May 14th. She argues 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."

By the time the committee starts hearing testimony on the bill, California might already be required to pass it or one similiar to it in order to comply with a new federal mandate in President Obama's 2012 budget proposal, which:

     "would require states to monitor prisoners' child-support orders, make sure that the orders are in line with inmates' resources, and adjust orders that would result in the buildup of debt."

Regardless of Washington's mandates, for California residents and policy-makers seeking practical, effective, and independent solutions to California's problems, Ackel's question from earlier in this article is worth repeating. "Who benefits from this?" If the answer is "no one," then it's time for the policy to change.

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