For parents in prison, mounting child support payments can become a crippling debt. That’s why President Barack Obama plans to overhaul the rules that govern how much prisoners pay in child support while they’re locked up.
According to Reuters, the new regulations, if put in place, would allow incarcerated parents to modify or lower the amount of child support they pay in prison. The goal of the reform is to reduce the large amounts of debt incurred by prisoners who struggle to pay thousands in back child support upon their release. For most, the inability to make child support payments ultimately lands them back in prison.
The rule changes haven’t been finalized just yet, but are expected to take effect before Obama leaves office, an unnamed White House official told Reuters.
The president’s move to improve policies governing prisoners’ child support payments is the latest in his recent efforts to make sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system. Just two months ago, Obama commuted the prison sentences of 214 federal inmates locked up on drug charges, Atlanta Black Star reports. Sixty-four of those inmates were sentenced to life behind bars.
“Today’s (August 5) historic announcement is yet another step in the administration’s efforts to restore proportionality to unnecessarily long drug sentences,” Justice Department Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in a statement. “In just the first eight months of 2016, the President has more than doubled the number of commutations granted in all of 2015. But we are not done yet, and we expect that many more men and women will be given a second chance through the Clemency Initiative.”
Some Republicans have denounced Obama’s move to modify child support payment laws, arguing that such changes would allow inmates to wiggle their way out of their parental responsibilities. Reuters reports that criminal justice reform was supposed to be a bi-partisan issue that both Democrats and Republicans worked to resolve. However, legislative efforts for said reforms have stalled on Capitol Hill.
“We are always happy to sit down and talk with Congress, but at some point we have to move forward with what we know we are legally permitted to do and what is right,” the unnamed White House official said.
According to the news site, most states have changed their laws, allowing prisoners to modify their child support payments. Yet, 14 states still don’t allow incarcerated parents to make such changes — or they make it incredibly hard for them to do so.
“We have two decades of evidence that says that being tough just hasn’t worked,” Glenn Martin, a formerly incarcerated parent, said of the U.S. child support system and the rules that govern it. “What it has done is further criminalize the people we should be trying to move into the labor market.”
While states are mostly in charge of their own child support programs, Washington ultimately sets the nationwide standards for said programs and provides monetary incentives to states that meet their targets.
The new regulations, drafted by the Obama administration in 2014, would require states to let prisoners modify their court-ordered child support payments, Reuters reports. They would also require that state courts set payment orders based on inmates’ real income.
Per an administration survey conducted in 2010, the average amount of child support owed by the nearly 15,000 prisoners with court-ordered payments was roughly $24,000. Rebecca Vallas, a managing director at the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress in Washington, called America’s child support policies a system that seeks to keep people behind bars.
“The child support system as it exists today in a lot of ways has become … a major driver of mass incarceration,” she said.