March 3, 2014
There is a massive problem in the U.S. when we are jailing our citizens for owing any type of debt. The law is written clearly that under federal law, debtors’ prisons are illegal. According to Marie Diamond (2011) federal imprisonment for unpaid debts has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. This does not, unfortunately, extend to state legislation. The states use a slippery slope in order to avoid violating the law while still ignoring the federal law against jailing poor people because who cannot afford to pay their debt. Many states and local courts skirt around the law by assessing fees, fines and costs as part of a civil fine or “criminal justice debt”, (Stephanie Lane). This essentially means that despite your financial situation, jail may be a punishment for any debt owed to the government.
This can cause quite a feeling of bias between the rich and the poor (as if more are needed) along with a feeling of designed inequality. By enforcing actions such as jailing people for debt, the system is conveying to people who commit crimes that if they have enough money to pay the fine, no other punishments will be imposed. In contrast, the same actions are telling the less fortunate, punishments will be more severe if one has no money. This thin line between criminally negligent and too poor to pay is unequivocally pertinent in child support guidelines and laws. Child support is hardly a problem until one cannot afford to pay the assigned amount to the state.
Sentencing in states as Indiana and Illinois carry prison sentences of eight years while Montana tacks on two more years for child support criminal punishment. Indiana fines parents $10,000 along with the jail sentence and Illinois charges a whopping $25,000. But the winner for the award of the most outrageous prison sentence goes to the state of Idaho. Idaho sentences its parents to 14 years but not exclusively for failing to pay court ordered child support. The sentence is for desertion and nonsupport of children OR wife. This law means that a man can be imprisoned for simply leaving a matrimonial household with or without children.
States have crossed a very narrow line when punishing citizens for debt and especially child support debt. Everyone knows that collecting debt from an incarcerated parent is nearly impossible. However, since most states refuse to disallow debt accumulated during prison the amount owed steadily increases during the duration of the incarceration. This is to ensure that poor people are kept in debt to the government for as long as possible. These rules do not apply to those who can afford hefty child support payments, fees, interest, and court costs.
Diamond, M. (2011, December 13). The Return Of Debtor's Prisons: Thousands Of Americans Jailed For Not Paying Their Bills | ThinkProgress. Retrieved February 26, 2013, from http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2011/12/13/388303/the-return-of-debtors-prisons-thousands-of-americans-jailed-for-not-paying-their-bills
Lane, S. (n.d.). The New Bill Collector Tactic: Jail Time | Nolo.com. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/the-new-bill-collector-tactic-jail-time.html
National Conference of State Legislator (2014, January). Criminal Nonsupport and Child Support. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/criminal-nonsupport-and-child-support.aspx
A parent and an author who has survived adverse situations and lived to write about it..