The Times West Virginian

March 22, 2013

Incarceration not best solution when it comes to child support


Times West Virginian

— The threat of punishment is designed to promote good behavior.

Failure to pay court-ordered child support is obviously a crime that West Virginia, like all states, must address.

However, the current form of punishment — sending the offender to jail — is simply not working. In fact, in many cases, it’s making matters worse. That topic was discussed at a West Virginia Senate committee on child poverty on Wednesday.

The discussion, The Associated Press reported, is likely to lead to legislation that will have bipartisan support.

The Rev. Matthew Watts, a community leader from Charleston’s West Side, described a situation where a parent fails to pay child support, is sent to jail and loses any source of income he may have had.

Then the child has no hope of getting support.

“We just always think that punishing somebody is going to get them to change their behavior,” Watts said. “What we’re doing is we’re punishing the innocent person. We’re taking their parent away from them ... the child is already poor, right? The family doesn’t have any money and then we’re gonna literally put their mother or father in prison or in jail.”

Under West Virginia law, someone found to willfully fail to pay child support can be sentenced to jail for up to six months, or until the debt is paid, whichever comes first. In most cases, with the offender in jail and unable to work, the debt simply continues to add up.

If a debt goes unpaid for a year, failure to pay child support can become a felony, and a person is sentenced to one to three years in prison.

Sentences, according to the AP, vary widely across the country — from 45 days in North Carolina to 14 years in Idaho.

A former judge and current legislator believes the current law is unacceptable.

“I’ve sent people to the penitentiary because of that, and there’s got to be a better way,” Sen. Donald Cookman said. “We also pay to incarcerate them and take care of their children. This really needs to be rethought as quickly as it can be rethought.”

Prison reform is a major piece of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s agenda this legislative session.

The West Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday that aims to improve public safety and ease overcrowding in the state’s filled-to-capacity prisons and jails.

If incarceration is not the answer in dealing with those who fail to pay child support, what is a solution?

Watts said that those found guilty should be sentenced to home confinement instead of jail so they can look for work to pay the back child support.

“You can get furloughed to go fill out a job application. You can get furloughed to go and get a job, but until you’re back in the good graces of paying your child support payment, we’re going to restrict your movement,” Watts said.

Cookman and Sen. Corey Palumbo, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said they expect to introduce a bill that would move punishment toward home confinement and away from jail sentences.

Sen. Mike Hall, the leader of Senate Republicans, said he buys the argument presented Wednesday and would likely be supportive of the bill.

“All you’re doing is ensuring there will never be child support,” Hall said of the current law. “That’s just one of those that just doesn’t make any sense at all.”

What makes sense is a system that is firm with offenders and doesn’t sentence children to additional months or years of guaranteed poverty.