Jailing 'Deadbeat Dads' Is Often Counterproductive

January 10, 1993|By ALAN FRIEDMAN

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis. -- It's easy to be outraged at the situation. A single mother struggling to make ends meet and provide a home for her child gets no support from the absent father who is unemployed in the bad economic times. But society's current solution -- to throw such "deadbeat dads" in jail -- simply punishes fathers who can't find work while doing nothing for the financial plight of the child.

What we have done is to turn much of our child support enforcement effort into a system which punishes the chronically unemployed and those who can find only sporadic work in minimum wage, service industry jobs. As the unemployment rate grew through 1992, the number of people sentenced to jail in Anne Arundel County for delinquent child support rose from 27 to 79, outnumbering those serving time for drunk driving, drug violations or any other felonies or misdemeanors.

While punishing these people by locking them up, we have also inflicted grave damage to taxpayers' wallets. A November, 1992 study of those 79 people then jailed in Anne Arundel County showed almost 70 percent had been behind bars for more than 60 days -- at a cost exceeding $50 per day per person. In many cases, state and local governments must pay twice -- first for the cost of incarceration and then for the payments to the single mother receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). One unemployed county father was recently sentenced 365 days in jail (at $50 per day) for failing to reimburse the Department of Social Services for $35 per week in AFDC child support payments.

In theory, the incarceration of "deadbeat dads" should provide a mechanism to insure the payment of child support while jailed. Those sentenced are usually given "live in-work out" status. This means the inmate can leave the jail to go to work but must return at the end of the day. Those employed have their current child support obligation deducted from their pay. The court also orders amounts to be taken out for delinquent payments and sets a figure, known as a "purge amount," that can be paid to win outright release from jail before the expiration of the sentence.

Sounds good, doesn't it? But the theory doesn't work so well in practice.

The first problem arises when the person sent to jail doesn't have a job in the first place. In Anne Arundel County, more than two-thirds of those recently jailed for non-support fit into that category. Overworked jail counselors, responsible for more than 600 pre-trial and sentenced inmates, are turned into an employment agency -- unfortunately, not a very successful one. Without a job, the inmate's current support amounts go unpaid, adding to the delinquent account to be faced upon eventual release.

The second difficulty is that purge amounts have been set at levels that almost insure continued incarceration. In November, 1991, only 7 percent of those jailed in the Anne Arundel Detention Center had purge amounts set at $1,000 or more. Yet, despite the worsening economy, the percentage of inmates who could only win release by paying $1,000 or more shot up to 65 percent within 12 months.

The typical "deadbeat dad" that we have jailed hasn't worked for some time and is now still unemployed. He's already cost taxpayers more than $3,000 to keep him in jail and, unless he can come up with $1,000 or so, he will remain behind bars -- while his jail costs and child support continue to mount up.

And what of the child? Left without a two-parent support structure and suffering for lack of financial help, studies show that this child is more likely to have trouble in school, become a disciplinary problem at home and ultimately wind up in the juvenile or adult criminal justice system.

What must now be done is to temper outrage with a more practical approach.

The desire to punish parents who cannot meet child support obligations simply because they do not have the employment skills to maintain a steady job must be set aside. We simply can't afford to pay for people to sit idly in jail because they are unemployed.

Old rules that reduce AFDC or social services payments when the father returns to live with his family must be discarded. What sense does it make to punish a mother by reducing this support if the father rejoins the family unit? We should be promoting the two-parent structure, not discouraging it.

Unskilled or semi-skilled parents must be directed to vocational training programs. The key to meeting any financial obligation is a good, steady job. Without the skills needed to get that job, these parents are merely biding time until they are jailed again.

Finally, public service jobs should be used as transitional employment to insure continued support payments during the training period. Local governments forced to downsize as budgets tighten could hire unemployed parents to fill public service needs at reasonable wages. Child support payments could be continued, and the county would see a savings when compared to the cost of incarceration.

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