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Debtors' Prisons Are Alive and Well in America

Incarceration of child support debtors is part of a broader set of policies that, in the words of Ehrenreich, “rob the poor.”
 
 
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The concept of a debtors’ prison is usually deemed a thing of the past, something out of a Dickens novel. But just this past June and July, New Jersey counties conducted one of their twice-annual raids to arrest people who are behind in child support payments. After the raids several New Jersey county sheriffs’ offices issued press releases proudly announcing the number of deadbeat parents they’d locked up.

New Jersey is not alone. Weeks ago Lebanon, Pennsylvania issued bench warrants for people who were behind on child support, in addition to publishing these debtors’ names. The trend is abundantly clear to those in the criminal justice community: incarceration is increasingly routine to child support enforcement practice -- even though many who owe child support are indigent. And as August brings with it National Child Support Awareness Month -- an obscure designation established in the mid-nineties by the Clinton Administration and linked child support enforcement to Clinton’s welfare reform legislation -- it is clear that federal policies toward the poor encourage toughness in collecting on child support arrears, often resulting in local incarceration of child support debtors. States and counties maintain the authority to lock people up for their child support debts -- revealing one of the many ways in which poverty is criminalized in America.

New Jersey county sheriffs are mandated to conduct the arrest raids as part of the state funding they receive, and they stand behind the policy. “I believe that it is important to have the ability to arrest violators and bring them before the court when they do not pay support,” Sheriff Jean Stanfield of Burlington County, New Jersey told AlterNet in an email. “Without the threat of incarceration, far fewer custodial parents would be receiving the child support owed to them.”

The arrests in Burlington County took place June 18, 19 and 20, and a total of 48 were arrested. According to documents provided by Sheriff Stanfield on July 25, four of the child support obligors remain in prison; five were jailed for more than two weeks; and several were jailed for one-four nights. All but four have ostensibly male names. Sheriff Stanfield’s press release did indicate that nearly $1 million in child support arrears were owed, the county has not yet shared with AlterNet how much money was collected from the raids.

The arrest raids generate small sums of money in connection to how much is actually owed. In Mercer County, New Jersey, the recent raid resulted in $41,000 in unpaid child support payments. Mercer County also led the state with 84 arrests. Yet $41,000 from a county that led the state in arrests is miniscule -- over $2 million is owed in child support arrears in Mercer County.

So arrests and incarceration for child support arrears persists even though they may not be effective in yielding payment or in the best interest of the state. In its 2010 report, “In for a Penny,” the ACLU found that “incarcerating indigent defendants unable to pay their LFOs (legal financial obligations) often ends up costing much more than states and counties can ever hope to recover. In one two-week period...16 men in New Orleans were sentenced to serve jail time when they could not pay their LFOs. If they served their complete sentences, their incarceration would cost the City of New Orleans over $1,000 more than their total unpaid legal debts. In Washington, one man was jailed for two weeks for missing $60 in LFO payments. In Ohio, a woman was held in jail for over a month for unpaid legal debt of $250.”

 
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