April 8th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Both houses of Maryland’s General Assembly have passed a bill that would suspend child support payments for parents who are incarcerated for more than 18 months. Read about it here (Washington Times, 4/4/12). The bill passed the House last month and the Senate last week and awaits the governor’s signature.
It’s based on the simple, obvious premise that parents in prison can’t support their children because they can’t earn any income.
That means, in the absence of the new law, their indebtedness goes up and up along with interest and fees. Once a parent is released from prison, paying off the debt is a virtual impossibility which forces the person into an underground economy of unofficial jobs paid in cash. That offers no help to the child or its custodial parent, but it does ruin the non-custodial parent’s chances of ever being a fully contributing member of society.
Supporters say prisoners often accumulate thousands of dollars in overdue support while behind bars without access to sufficient funds, which then makes it harder for them to find work and deters them from making regular payments after their release.
“They do absolutely go into the underground when they have these huge obligations,” said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, Baltimore Democrat. “We want to shed some light on it and put practices into play that would encourage them to be responsible.”
About half of U.S. prison inmates have open child-support cases, according to a study by the Center for Law and Social Policy.
And of course sending the newly released parent into the underground economy scarcely benefits the child. The parent can’t pay and often won’t even try to pay when forced with thousands of dollars in child support, fees and interest. So in fact, the new law, assuming the governor signs it, will do little to deprive children of support and possibly make that support more likely.
Supporters said child-welfare agencies and family advocates favor the bill, and they argued it would cut red tape and legal costs by automatically suspending payments rather than getting courts involved. They also said it would have minimal effect on payments or revenue because inmates would, in many cases, be unable to pay regardless.
It’s a law Alan Northrop doubtless wishes were in place in his home state of Washington. He’s the father I wrote about just a couple of days ago who was wrongly convicted of rape and spent 17 years behind bars. He was finally exonerated by the Innocence Project and released, only to discover the state that had railroaded him into prison for a crime he didn’t commit now demands he pay it $111,000 in child support. It doesn’t get much more brazen than that, but in truth, Northrop seemingly has no recourse. The state paid his girlfriend and he must reimburse the state. Never mind that, had the state not imprisoned him, it never would have paid his children’s mother.
The Maryland law is immanently reasonable. It deals sensibly with a situation that’s both unfair to both noncustodial parents and their children alike. Predictably, it was a tough bill to pass. Opponents parrot the talking point that non-custodial parents must be responsible to their children.
Despite support from child-welfare agencies and family advocates, the legislation was opposed by 11 of 12 Republicans and 10 of 34 voting Democrats, many of whom argued that it unnecessarily coddles prison inmates.
Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, Prince George’s Democrat, worried the bill could force more parents who aren’t receiving support to turn to welfare assistance, further burdening state and federal governments.
“I think the message that it sends is a bad message,” he said. “If you go to jail, you still have some responsibilities.”
We all agree, but opponents need to explain how a parent in prison is supposed to earn and pay what he owes. Tellinglly, none of them addresses that simple, obvious point.
The Maryland governor should sign this sensible legislation. All other states should follow suit.