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Thursday, April 4, 2013 11:04 am

Debt piles up behind bars

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An Illinois prisoner can accrue tens of thousands of dollars in child support debt while incarcerated because of Illinois child support laws.

This, according to Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago, is counterproductive and needs to change.

“It just seems like a system that is very harsh and inevitably leads to greater harm to family life,” she said.

Thousands of Illinois prisoners are continuing to accumulate child support debt with no way to pay it. Davis, along with Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, are asking the General Assembly to reassess a longstanding rule in the Illinois prison system. Both representatives have cosponsored a bill which would suspend an inmate’s obligation to pay child support while they are in prison. On March 20 the bill passed through committee and was placed on the House calendar for debate when the legislature returns after April 8.  

Currently if a person is incarcerated and has child support obligations during their imprisonment, child support and interest may accumulate in their name. Not paying child support is illegal, and it could lead to a suspended driver’s license and lowered credit ratings. The bill would alleviate large amounts of child support debt some prisoners owe.

“We realized it’s the right thing to do because if a person can’t pay, why would we continue to burden the state with keeping the books and the records of unpaid child support payments?” said Ford.

With 5,589 prisoners accounting for 6,646 of the state’s child support cases, Ford said the resources used to track their child support could be used more efficiently.

According to Pam Lowry, administrator of child support services for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, these 5,589 prisoners currently owe more than $97.4 million in uncollectible child support debt. Lowry also said in an email to Illinois Times that the Illinois Healthcare and Family Services’ Division of Child Support Services uses an average of $180,000 annually to track prisoners’ child support cases.

The bill would apply to all inmates serving a sentence of a year or more. The suspension would apply to inmates incarcerated after July and would not erase any child support debt for prisoners already incarcerated. However, those incarcerated before the bill is enacted would not accumulate any more child support debt.

Davis said she thinks making prisoners pay child support is another way to keep them in the prison cycle. “It’s almost a system of slavery,” she said. “I don’t condone criminal behavior; I don’t condone it at all. However, it’s very foolish, and I think it’s just harsh and unrealistic for the state of Illinois to have someone incarcerated, not earning any money that I know of, but, everyday the cash register continues to ring, adding up child support that they owe.”

She added that although she understands mothers need financial support, it seems as if the burden of back child support for a prisoner only decreases the chances of them being able to rebuild their lives.

“It isn’t geared towards rehabilitation; it isn’t really geared towards getting money for that mother. It is geared for further punishment, in my opinion. It’s a whole industry based off committing a crime,” she said.

During the time a person is incarcerated, if the parent or legal guardian who is left to provide for the child is not financially stable the state can provide Medicaid and food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This is the only state-funded assistance available in place of child support, and beneficiaries must meet certain financial requirements.

Davis added that the bill says if a prisoner has income generated from real estate or a business in their name, then that could be used for child support. However, she did say this is rare.

Ford said there is no one who openly opposes the bill, but he would not consider using a prisoner’s wage that they make while incarcerated.

“Prison wage is very minimal and the person in prison still has to survive. Hopefully the person incarcerated will use the time to restore themselves so when they come out they can support their child,” Ford said.

Contact Jacqueline Muhammad at intern@illinoistimes.com.
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