Prisoner's Dilemma

As the budget debate unfolds over the next several months, the focus will likely be on big-ticket items like Social Security and Medicare and how they will affect the deficit. Inevitably lost in the high-stakes wrangling are the many small-bore programs that have a significant impact on individual Americans. To wit: President Barack Obama's 2012 budget contains a proposal -- on page 279 of an attachment to the main document -- that would end draconian state-level policies that force low-income fathers convicted of crimes to continue paying child support while in prison, leaving them saddled with debt they will never be able to pay once they're released.

Melissa Lindsay knows exactly how that will affect the people she works with at the Ohio Poverty Law Center in Columbus, Ohio. An attorney and fellow of the nonprofit Equal Justice Works, she counsels ex-prisoners on how to get beyond the hurdles set up by state-level child-support policies, which often land them back in prison. The problem that most vexes these ex-offenders is getting a job in the down economy, she says. But almost as often, they worry about paying down their impossibly huge child-support debts. These liabilities continue to accrue while they're locked up, and many men are shocked at the amount they owe once they get out. "A lot of folks think that there's some sort of main database where somebody knows, OK, John Smith's gone to prison, so obviously he can't be paying child support," Lindsay says.

In most Ohio counties, as in 11 other states, incarceration is considered "voluntary unemployment," meaning prisoners can't have their child support payments suspended while they're behind bars. As a result, they emerge from prison with enormous debts, severely hampering their chances for successful re-entry into society by making employment -- already difficult with a conviction history -- counterproductive to their economic success: States can take as much as 65 percent out of their paychecks to recoup the support. Even worse, these policies don't help their children -- in cases in which the child's mother is on welfare, states keep much of the money paid by the father to recover the costs. It all serves to drive fathers out of the legitimate job market and often, back into prison.

Now, with the rising costs of prisons increasingly ruining state budgets and with the recidivism rate at 68 percent, even conservative Republicans -- like Chris Christie in New Jersey and Rick Scott in Florida -- are looking at ways to make ex-prisoners' debts more manageable to discourage them from re-offending.

Motivating those efforts are cases like that of 40-year-old Glenn Martin. In 1995, he was convicted for an armed robbery of a New York City jewelry store and was sentenced to six years in prison. When he went to jail, he had $300 in outstanding child-support debt and owed $100 a week as part of his regular court-ordered payment. He was worried because he'd have no income in prison and knew he'd emerge owing more money. He guessed at the time it would total $3,000 or $4,000.

When he got out in June 2001, he decided to turn his life around, get a job, and stay out of trouble. But then he found out about his child-support bill. Not only had his payments accrued during the six years but the state had tacked on 9 percent compounding interest. The bill was $50,000.

Two months after being out, he landed a $17,000-a-year job answering phones for a nonprofit law firm. At that salary, he knew he'd never get out from under his debt. So he got the money the only way he knew how. He won't say what he did but calls it "unmentionable" and says if he'd gotten caught, he would have ended up back in prison and still be there today.

Martin is not a rare case. Jenny Triplett, publisher of the Georgia-based magazine Prisonworld, which is distributed inside jails, often talks to ex-prisoners who seek job advice and contacts. Like Ohio, Georgia considers prisoners to be voluntarily unemployed and makes paying child-support debt a condition of their probation. Triplett says trying to meet that probation requirement is, perversely, often what leads them back to crimes like dealing drugs. "They'll say to me, which I don't like to hear, 'I just have to go do what I know,' and they revert back to what they know with a quick sell."

While there are no current national figures on child-support debt among prisoners, a 2002 estimate showed that a sample of Massachusetts inmates would leave prison in arrears by an average of $31,000; in Colorado the figure among a group of parolees in 2001 was $16,700. Until Michigan launched a project to adjust prisoners' debts in 2004, inmates owed an average of $28,000, according to figures from the state's Supreme Court.

Digging out of holes like these would be a colossal task for almost anyone. But most offenders are poor to start with. In a 2006 report, the New York State Bar Association found it "fair to conclude that about 80 percent of all defendants charged with a felony in the United States are indigent," and a 2002 U.S. Department of Justice study found that 59 percent of prisoners nationally reported incomes under $12,000 before their arrest.

And finding a job is a struggle even in good times because most employers are wary of hiring ex-offenders. A 2003 study by Princeton University researcher Devah Pager in Milwaukee showed that white ex-offenders were half as likely to get a call back from prospective employers as those without a record; black applicants with a record were about a third as likely to be called. The safety net often doesn't work for them either: Former prisoners can be barred from public assistance and food stamps, low-income housing, and access to drug and mental-health treatment.

This doesn't concern child-support agencies, which have the power to confiscate much of what ex-offenders are able to earn. Parents who don't keep up with payments may not only have their take-home pay garnished but may also have driver's licenses and professional licenses suspended, be reported as delinquent on their credit reports, and have their bank accounts seized. Martin points out that for those who need cars to get to work or to do their job, the license suspension alone can mean the end of employment.

Sixty-year-old former offender Ernesto Ramirez from New York City breaks down as he recalls the $45,000 he owed when he emerged after 25 years in prison in 2007. The outstanding debt meant that when he started earning money, he couldn't open a bank account, even though his paychecks were already being garnished -- the child-support agency told him it would seize any money he deposited to pay down the debt. So he carried his savings, usually $1,000, around in a plastic bag in his shoes. The system, he says, was "merciless."

The measure in Obama's budget proposal would require states to monitor prisoners' child-support orders, make sure that the orders are in line with inmates' resources, and adjust orders that would result in the buildup of debt. States also would need to make it easier for prisoners to request an adjustment to their support orders when they enter prison. And the proposal addresses the practice in New Jersey, Florida, and other states of recouping welfare costs by not turning over child-support checks to the custodial parent if that parent receives welfare benefits. The budget provides a total of $1 billion over 10 years to encourage states to turn over those payments to the parent with custody.

Fiscal pressure is creating some surprising allies for the administration's plan. New Jersey Gov. Christie recently ordered a review of the state's prison system by the conservative Manhattan Institute to determine how to lower the state's 60 percent rate of recidivism and reduce prison costs. This month, Newark's Star-Ledger reported on a leaked copy of the report of that review. One of its recommendations is that the state begin to forgive some prisoners' child-support debts -- those who pay their child-support checks to the state, not to the mother, as part of the state's welfare repayment policy.

Even in cases in which a check would go to the custodial parent, there's wide agreement that suspending child-support payments while a person is imprisoned is better for both parents. In Wisconsin's Milwaukee County, the child-support agency has suspended payments by inmates since 2005, as long as the child's custodial parent agrees. Agency director Lisa Jo Marks says suspension is enacted in about 80 percent of cases. Joan Entmacher of the National Women's Law Center explains why: Custodial parents recognize that once the incarcerated parent leaves prison, they'll never earn enough to both pay off their debt and make their regular payments, so saddling fathers with a large deficit actually may drive them underground.

If Obama's budget item survives, it will do wonders for ex-prisoners' chances for success. Since Glenn Martin got past his $50,000 debt, he's been a rising star. His first job answering phones led to a series of promotions, and in 2005, he was appointed deputy director of a national hiring network that helps ex-offenders find employment. Today, he directs a public policy center at the Fortune Society, a New York City nonprofit that supports re-entry for ex-offenders, and serves on numerous boards. He's also a homeowner and has health-care benefits and a retirement plan.

And in a stroke of karmic justice, last fall he worked with New York state legislators to pass a law that abolished the state's "willful unemployment" designation for inmates. That is giving thousands of people exiting New York prisons a better chance to make it as they move back into society, ensuring that they won't have to choose, as he did, between starting a new chapter and paying off their debts.

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