"I've been an addict of one kind or another since I was a boy" says Pierre Williams, who has spent the last 20 years in and out of prison while battling his drug addiction. "The past year is about the only time in my life I've been clean, and I like it. I've spent most of my kids' lives holding their hands through prison bars. I'm living close to them now, I'm getting a straight job, and I want to be a part of their lives."
Williams was crushed when he recently learned that he owes $12,000 in child support arrearages to reimburse the state for the benefits paid to his wife and kids while he was in prison. The support arrearages, which he never knew existed, will consume as much as half of Williams' modest salary, virtually destroying the possibility of the new, stable life that the 42 year-old East Palo Alto resident had dreamed of behind bars.
Williams is one of tens of thousands of California men and women who have been charged child support and interest while they were incarcerated, and who struggle under staggering debt as they attempt to reintegrate into society. The debts drive many recently released prisoners out of their children's lives and into the underground economy or illegal activity. Elena Ackel, senior attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, says:
"The wonder of the current system is that everybody loses. The state tries to beat astronomical child support arrearages--$20,000 or $30,000 in many cases--out of dead broke, unskilled, and unemployed people who just got out of prison. Some of these people even end up back in jail because they couldn't pay the child support which accrued while they were in jail. Who benefits from this?"
Earlier this year Los Angeles Assemblyman Rod Wright introduced sensible legislation into the California State Assembly to solve the problem. Assembly Bill 2245 provides for a stay of a support order when a person owing support is incarcerated for more than 30 consecutive days. In addition, the bill establishes incarceration for 90 days or more as a "change of circumstances" upon which a support modification motion may be based, and it sets up machinery to help prisoners file their support paperwork. The Assembly Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin hearing testimony on the bill on May 14.
The bill is a sensible measure to reform shortsighted policies which focus on recouping the cost of state-sponsored family assistance programs and ignore the potentially greater cost of criminal recidivism. According to California State Controller Kathleen Connell, the average annual cost of state-level incarceration in California is $21,000 per prisoner. Thus it makes no sense to risk pushing ex-convicts back into crime in order to collect child support money which many low-income former prisoners will never be able to pay anyway.
Dianna Thompson of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, who will be testifying in favor of the bill in Sacramento on May 14, says that the policy also ignores the fact that "child support is supposed to be based on income and the ability to pay. If you don't and can't have an income, child support should reflect that."
Thompson adds that the current policy is irrational, because it "creates a condition during an inmate's incarceration which often leads them to being re-incarcerated--even though they haven't committed a crime."
Changing the policy is difficult, because reforms benefit two of society's most disliked groups, ex-convicts and "dead beat" parents. While states such as North Carolina (whose legislation AB 2245 is modeled upon) and New York have enacted sensible measures to address the problem, California Governor Gray Davis vetoed a child support amnesty bill two years ago.
For people like Williams, it is like being punished all over again.
"I make no excuses for what I've done--the burglaries and petty crimes I committed to support my drug addictions, and the fact that I was unable to support my wife and kids," he says. "But I've also paid my debt to society with many hard years in prison. Now I want to do something positive for myself and for my kids. Why are they doing everything they can to stop me?"
This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal and San Francisco Daily Journal (5/9/02).