A U.S. growth industry: imprisoning Americans for nonpayment of child support

“NY court approves extended jail for child support non-payments” describes a decision that loser parents under the winner-take-all New York family law system can now be imprisoned for multiple years at a time, not just for six-month stretches. There are some interesting statistics in the article:

Federal data show that unpaid child support has risen over the past 30 years from nearly $3 billion to more than $115 billion nationally, Garcia wrote.

(Note that the time period selected roughly coincides with the introduction of child support guidelines that gave certainty to the profits that could be obtained from winning custody of a child and made out-of-wedlock children just as profitable as children of a marriage. (See the History of Divorce chapter.))

Court orders to pay child support cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and there is no statute of limitations for non-payment. There are also high interest rates attached to unpaid child support (a state-by-state list; it is 9 percent in New York). So this should continue to be a growth industry for both government-run and for-profit prisons (as well as for the child support enforcement and judicial bureaucracy that results in obtaining the prison sentences).

17 thoughts on “A U.S. growth industry: imprisoning Americans for nonpayment of child support

  1. I do not get it… does that NY Court propose that “loser parents” (let’s cut the BS: the dads) be put in prison at taxpayers’ considerable expense, so that they be compelled to work in the prison workshops for fractional minimum wages – which then will be used to offset the unpaid stipulated monthly child support stipend (well, the fraction of it) to the plaintiff?

    I thought the idea of a debtors’ prison has played itself out in AngloSaxon jurisprudence, but from what you wrote apparently not.

  2. There aren’t great stats on this, but it seems that at least in Michigan roughly 1 in 7 child support defendants eventually went to jail (see http://www.realworlddivorce.com/PostDivorceLitigation ). I think the theory is that a shorter-term sentence will motivate the defendant to work harder upon release and pay past child support, interest, and court-ordered amounts going forward. New Jersey has a special prison system where men can be incarcerated evenings, nights, and weekends while being free to work a 9-5 M-F job.

  3. New Jersey has a special prison system where men can be incarcerated evenings, nights, and weekends while being free to work a 9-5 M-F job.

    How is that different from being indentured/ servitude?

  4. I scan the local mug shots in my FL county each day. One out of every three arrests for non-support is of a female.

  5. True story:
    A local programmer was arrested for failure to pay child support and was jailed. At a contentious hearing he promised an official of the local child support payment enforcement bureau: “I’ll get you back.”
    Fast forward about six months. On a Monday morning every employee of that local CSPE bureau arrived for work to discover an email that opened to a link labeled “Want to see how much your co-worker makes?”
    Upon clicking on the link, it opened to a website that listed the names and current salaries of each person in that office. The site revealed several employees making much more than others who did the same job, one particular employee had received several large raises from her supervisor (with whom they’d always suspected she was having an affair) and even a circumstance of a particularly attractive staffer who was awarded far more raises than anyone else.
    Needless to say, that Monday and several subsequent days were filled with anger and accusations. Then the real bomb dropped: the creator of the website had installed a mechanism that kept up with the amount of time every person spent who had logged onto the website. The website creator contacted a state official who was in charge of this particular Child Support Enforcement office, sending him a detailed accounting of how much time various employees had spent on the salary revelations website versus how much time they had actually spent working.
    End result: two supervisors were fired and hard feelings ensued for months afterwards.
    Guess who created that website?

  6. Sounds plausible enough, but seems to be missing the last chapter: the programmer of the website being investigated for computer break-in/ breach of security (I assume that those wages data are not in public domain), also on the strength of him earlier being on record of threatening the hard-working CSPE official in the line of duty with revenge (of what can only be called institutional doxxing).

    Any URLs fleshing out that story?

  7. Have you had any takers on fixing the various broken parts of divorce / child support farming? I think you have previously sad no, but perhaps things have changed.

  8. Smartest Woman: I don’t think it is an accident that you see a lot of women arrested as a result of their encounters with the Florida family law system. According to U.S. Census March 2014 data, only 84 percent of Floridians collecting child support are women. Compare to 94 percent in California, for example, or 97 percent in Massachusetts.

    Peter: Sticking with the Florida example, I don’t think it is fair to characterize the system as “broken.” If you’re a lawyer making a good income from people fighting over who gets “permanent alimony” and how much, is that a broken system? If you’re a man with no job collecting permanent alimony from a 50-year-old medical doctor and having fun with 25-year-old women, is that a broken system? Is it “broken” that collecting child support following a one-night encounter with a high-income person pays better than a lifetime of marriage to a middle-income person? Is it “broken” that having three children with three co-parents pays roughly 2X as much (depending on the state) as having three children with one co-parent? Is it broken that having sex for one night with a high-income person pays more than going to college and working for a lifetime? These are moral questions that don’t even make sense in an explicitly amoral system.

  9. It’s really unfortunate that people have children and don’t care enough to support them, but it happens. Like many things, we must minimize the negative impact overall while still punishing the perpetrators. Sending non-payers to debtors prison is one of the most economically inefficient methods of dealing with it. You can’t get blood out of turnips, and you can’t get money from people who don’t have money. It’s a sad situation, but many things are like that in this world. But if they do have money and don’t pay, they should go to prison (most people will pay up rather than sit in jail).
    I liked comment #8. From a purely monetary perspective, it does pay more to have sex with a high income person for one night than to spend a lifetime with a middle income person. If money is all people care about, then go for it. However, the moral way is always the best way. Things don’t always go well when you do the moral thing, but they almost always go less well when you do the immoral thing.

  10. @John W.

    If someone doesn’t have the money, then why are you assuming they don’t care?

  11. @ianf
    The guy didn’t hack into anything. The employee emails were easy to find and as I understand, he made a request for salaries using some sort of form set up to assist researchers of government records. Apparently the various employee salaries were considered public record of some sort.
    This is as told to me by a friend whose wife nearly lost her job at the described Child Support Enforcement bureau because of what occurred.

  12. Thanks for covering the Court of Appeals decision extending the length of child support debtors incarceration. Some further analysis:

    With regard to Smartest Woman on the Internet’s informal observation that only three times more men than women are arrested for child support debt non-payment, the gender ration in persons incarcerated for child support debt is even more unequal. Women are less likely than men to be sentenced to incarceration. Among those sentenced to incarceration, women receive shorter sentences. Overall, the gender ratio of persons being held behind bars for child support debts is about 8 men per woman. See:

    For comparison, the gender ratio of men to women’s labor market earnings, not controlling for job experience, work experience, occupational risk, and many other earnings-relevant factors, is about 1.2.

  13. Sorry for some minor quantitative misstatements in my comment above. Relative to the normal level of rationality and factuality in public discussion of child support, my inadvertent misstatements above are trivial.

  14. “It’s really unfortunate that people have children and don’t care enough to support them, but it happens.”

    John W. – In my and many others’ cases it’s not a matter of supporting my children – it’s a matter of supporting adults who happen to spend some of the money on our children.

  15. @ Mark #11,
                        your response carries so many conditionals, trigger flags of uncertainty, that it essentially confirms my earlier suspicion of it being more of a apocryphal, gradually fleshed-out URBAN REVENGE FANTASY LEGEND, than a Cautionary True Tale of the Man-Bites-Authority-Dog folkloristic genre. Nothing wrong with that… beginning with the Bible, the human invention literature is full of sanctimoniously wrapped untruths, and, more recently, not a few Holocaust survivors felt “the need” to embellish their ordeals (several known/ exposed cases), or else nobody would believe them (the same reason why the majority of them keep schtum). But let us keep things in perspective, and remember that there’s some           distance between revenge fantasy and reality. And that these two have a tendency to mesh together with the passage of time.

    @ Sam #14 – I read John W’s “unfortunate” as his unfortunate choice of a lament over the condition, not condemnation of the deadbeat dads/ parents as such. Let us just agree that, where pro-creative family politics are concerned, the US jurisprudence is FUBAR in one respect (eviscerating “winner takes all” dogmas), and SNAFU in all the others. And, as for its debtors’ prisons, smack back in the XVIIIth century.

  16. @ianf,

    Unless I’m losing my mind, this was an entirely accurate account. It occured in Virginia about seven years ago. Maybe in your mind this is difficult to believe, but it did indeed happen.

  17. Mark, no disrespect intended, I was only trying to make you aware of the many logic[k]al inconsistencies in your narrative, that its veracity could be questioned. I realize that you know and believe it all to be true (just as Catholics believe some Jesus guy died on the cross for their, your and my sins – a claim that I equally dispute and reject, which makes me an INFIDEL). That in itself is no proof for it having been true, however. I thought that you’d drop the matter after my previous non-accusatory comment #15, but I was mistaken. So now I’ll end this with this non-rhetorical question for you to find a logic answer to (Aristotlean, not Korzybski’s logic preferred):

    IF, as you wrote, “the various employee salaries were considered public record of some sort,” (thus accessible to, and possibly already known by that your programmer’s mass-email recipients) THEN what was so novel and/or shocking in a social revenge kind of way for these data to be “disclosed” anew in a mail window?

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