Prison Sentences for Unpaid Child Support

As research leads the path to discovery of new information, certain old information will always remain fresh.  The brain has a distinct way of sorting through what one feels in unforgettable information and data that is easily forgotten.  Prison sentencing for parents convicted of ‘willful’ failure to pay child support is one that remains both fresh and unforgettable during the quest for new information.  To be clear, both state and federal guidelines are absolute in the definition of the criteria that must be met before someone is arrested and convicted for any child support payment issues.  Section 228 of Title 18, United States Code, makes it illegal for any individual to willfully fail to pay child support in certain circumstances, (The United State Department of Justice, DOJ).

This, of course is the federal statute, but all states are uniform when including the word ‘willfully’ in their guidelines. Unfortunately, many parents are not afforded the right to defend themselves against their accusers and are automatically presumed guilty of willful failure to pay.  All states have some sort of imprisonment penalty on record, although some punishments are more severe than others.  States such as Minnesota, Kansas, and Wisconsin sentence convicted parents to three, seven, or nine month prison stays, respectively.  These sentences share the less than a one year time frame with parents that are convicted in federal court.

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), a violation of 18 U.S.C. 228 is a criminal misdemeanor, and a convicted offender faces fines and up to six months in prison.  To some, six months may seem like a slap on the wrist.  To others, six months may seem like a lifetime, especially when personal circumstances, such as unemployment or illness, may not be considered during the sentencing phase.  And then there are parents that consider a half of a year behind bars a blessing when considering the possibility of spending several years locked away from their children.

Before a parent is sentenced to a prison sentence, the state must prove that 1.) the defendant acted knowingly or intentionally and 2.) the defendant failed to provide support, (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013).  That being said, many parents without attorneys present are sentenced between several years to 14 years depending on the state. Federal law, at least, specifies that a parent must have failed to pay support for at least two years before the possibility of a felony charge can be initiated. The states operate under different criteria but it all equals lengthy jail sentences for those convicted of contempt of court.  The maximum sentence for parents convicted in federal court is up to two years.

In Arkansas and Tennessee the two years triples and it quadruples in Illinois and Indiana.  If a parent heads further west and fails to comply with child support laws, prison sentencing really skyrockets. In Montana, if convicted for nonsupport and or aggravated nonsupport (if obligor leaves state or has a prior conviction) that parent can spend 10 years in prison (NCLS, 2014).  This is approximately the same amount of time a person convicted of rape was ordered to serve in 2006.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics or BOJ (2013), the mean maximum sentence length for sexual assault was 96 months or eight years. The fact that a person in the US can serve a shorter sentence when committing a crime of sexual assault than a person who may be unable to afford child support payments is an unnerving reality. Traveling to Idaho, one will discover that if a parent is convicted of desertion and nonsupport or children or a wife, he can be sentenced to 14 years in prison, (NCSL, 2013).  Traveling back in time to 2006 the DOJ reported that those convicted of murder did only a few years more than the Idaho sentence for failure to pay support.

The mean maximum sentence length for a felony sentence to murder or non-negligent manslaughter was 19.1 years.

There is no logical reason that a parent who may be too poor to pay support should receive a fairly close prison sentence as one who has taken a life.  Fines included with actual child support arrears and the amount of money that it takes to care for a prisoner really opens a portal to the government greed that drives the child support system. The revenues generated from the imprisonment of poor parents equals money that will never be sent to or used by the children.  The government is the true beneficiaries of the child support system.  It is time to remove prison as a possible punishment for parents, especially when they are poor and are not ‘willfully’ failing to pay support.

Once this has been accomplished, the true reasoning behind the child support system will be finally be recognized. The one time helpful system benefiting abandoned families has been transformed into money generating debt collection agency. The most significant difference in what the system was meant to be and what it is currently is the distortion of the word ‘willfully’.  Most people do not ‘willfully’ mean to be poor and therefore can be found guilty of ‘willfully’ failing to pay child support.


National Conference of State Legislatures. (2013, January). Criminal Nonsupport and Child Support. Retrieved July 29, 2014, from

U.S. Department of Justice. (2010, November 22). Felony sentences in state courts, 2006-Statistical tables. Retrieved July 29, 2014, from

The United States Department of Justice. (n.d.). USDOJ: CRM: Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section. Retrieved July 29, 2014, from