A fugitive people within a nation is tyranny.

by Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D

The more one learns about our system of criminal justice, the more one must wonder about some of its senseless policies.  That the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world is pretty much common knowledge to most.  But in case you have been asleep at the wheel, here are some mind-numbing numbers. With about five percent of the world’s population, the United States is home to nearly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.  About 2.2 million people are locked behind bars on a given day.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 1,561,500 inmates in state and federal prisons at year-end 2014 (serving terms of one year or more) and another 744,660 in local jails at midyear 2014.  About 6.9 million Americans (one in 35 adults) were under some form of correctional supervision (incarcerated, on parole or probation) at yearend 2013.  The number of adult Americans with felony convictions is estimated to be about 24 million (8.6%).  About 25 percent of black American adults have a felony conviction.

That’s the big picture.  However, throughout our criminal justice system there are laws, regulations, and issues that are antithetical to the notion of a free and democratic society.  The coercive and often deadly policing of neighborhoods of color, discriminatory “stop and frisk” laws, criminalization of the mentally ill, bail policies that unfairly impact poor suspects, and what many consider to be the inhumane over dependence on and arbitrary use of solitary confinement.  Family members and friends are often forced to travel inordinate distances to visit children, friends, and other people they care for.  They are charged exorbitant fees to speak with them by telephone and are treated without dignity during visitation.  Much of this has occurred because various elected officials compete to see who can be toughest on people who defy the law.  Many books and hundreds of journal articles have been written about our unjust system of crime control.  My dissertation focused on the impact of incarceration on the earnings and employment of indigent fathers.

InmateThe Washington Post ran an article on one particularly perplexing policy impacting poor inmates which disproportionately affects black and Latino fathers.  Child support obligations continue during periods of incarceration which often amass significant amounts of debt while these fathers are behind bars.  Once released, indebted fathers are under pressure to pay down their arrears.  Failure to do so results in more late fees and penalties and could ultimately put them back in prison.  In many jurisdictions this occurs because incarceration is considered “voluntary impoverishment”.  The term generally refers to those who quit their jobs or otherwise forfeit income in order to avoid paying an ex-spouse alimony or child support.  A classic example might be Marvin Gaye’s 1978 release of “Here My Dear,” thought to be a lackluster recording whose proceeds were going to his ex-wife, Anna Gordy Gaye.

The idea that poor fathers would deliberately get themselves locked up to avoid paying child support is ludicrous on its face and a ridiculous justification for current policy.  Columbia University social work professor Ronald B. Mincy and Urban Institute scholar Elaine Sorensen first wrote about child support policies that were burying poor incarcerated fathers back in 1998 differentiating “deadbeat” dads from “turnips”.  Deadbeat dads were those who could afford to pay but did not.  Turnips were fathers who were unable to pay—the thinking being the old adage that you can’t get blood from a turnip.  Although there is a judge in Alabama who thinks giving blood is a reasonable substitute.

The Obama Administration believes current child support policy that piles debts on poor incarcerated fathers is helping no one.  It does nothing for the mother or her child’s circumstance.  Housing the father as an inmate is significantly more costly than what the state could recoup from fathers for welfare payments to their children.  Fathers are often removed permanently from the lives of their children which one could argue might be good or bad.  The Office of Child Support Enforcement has drafted new rules that will go into effect in 2017 that changes the definition of incarceration to “involuntary” impoverishment and would allow indigent incarcerated fathers to push the pause button or negotiate a payment reduction while incarcerated.

Not surprising Republican lawmakers oppose what appears to be a commonsense rule change.   Utah Senator Orin Hatch and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have introduced legislation to block the new rules.  There are many things wrong with our current system of criminal justice and reform is moving at a glacial pace.  In the meantime, much too much human capital is being obliterated by the many indelible scars being inflicted on far too many people—particularly African American males.

Child Support Laws Crippling Poor Fathers was originally published @ Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy » Charles Lewis.

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