Walter Scott: at odds with the law prior to being murdered by the police

Four children lost their father and a woman lost her companion when Walter Lamer Scott was shot on April 4. The Wikipedia article on Mr. Scott notes that he had been repeatedly arrested for failure to pay child support. News articles linked to by the Wikipedia posting indicate that Scott was running away from the police officer who murdered him due to fears about being incarcerated for being behind on child support.

How common is it for an American to be on the wrong side of the law due to our child support system and how realistic were Scott’s fears? The “Post-Divorce Litigation” chapter of our book cites some statistics indicating that roughly 1 in 7 men who are ordered to pay child support will eventually be imprisoned. As they are being imprisoned for contempt of court rather than a criminal offense they are not entitled to an attorney nor do they enjoy a presumption of innocence.

The media coverage of the event stresses the fact that Mr. Scott was in conflict with the police due to his skin color. Yet they could equally have stressed that he was in conflict with our justice system due to the fact that he had children and, for whatever reason, was not living with their custodial parent(s).

This was a sad event, obviously, but I am not sure that it must be interpreted as a black-white event.

[What if Mr. Scott had lived in Europe? In most countries, the financial consequences of losing a custody lawsuit would likely have been a small fraction of what he had been ordered to pay here. In most countries he would not have been subject to imprisonment for failure to pay. (section 3.3 of this EU Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality report has a table of the coercive measures applied in different countries)]

4 thoughts on “Walter Scott: at odds with the law prior to being murdered by the police

  1. Until the number of white men gunned down by cops while running away is proportionate per capita, yes — this will *rightly* be interpreted as a black-white event. His motivation for running has nothing to do with it.

  2. In the past, you could be sent to Debtors’ Prison if you failed to pay your debts, but now we consider this to be archaic and barbaric. For some reason, we still consider it OK to imprison people for failure to pay this one type of debt.

    Mr. Scott’s shooting probably had a racial element. I can say for sure, but it’s my guess that the cop would not have shot a white man in the same situation.

  3. Glenn: You wouldn’t expect the number of black and white men running away to be proportionate because (1) being ordered to pay child support, and (2) being subject to a child support order that is larger than his after-tax/after-subsistence income, is much more likely to happen to a black man. See for example: “Traditionally, low-income fathers have viewed that system as one-sided, biased in favor of single mothers and interested in fathers only for their money.51 As noted, child support withholding seems to have driven down employment among low-skilled young black men. … Child support problems were most serious among black men. In 2003, 68 percent of black births occurred outside marriage, much the highest rate for any race. Probably a quarter of black men aged sixteen to twenty-four—and half of those aged twenty-five to thirty-four—are noncustodial fathers.”

  4. @Phil: Actually, I think that table is deceptive. In many European countries, prison time is part of the ordinary legal measures to force people to make payments on regular debts. It is very rare, but “debtor’s prison” still exists, and I don’t think it’s unheard of for someone to go to jail for failure to pay child support.

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