Ugh. I’d be really curious to hear the rationale from the policymakers who came up with this idea:
In most Ohio counties, as in eleven 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 reentry 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.…
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.
Steve Yoder, the author of the linked piece, writes that the Obama administration is trying to end this practice. Like so much of the way we treat crime in this country — and so necessarily, poverty as well — this is purely, nakedly punitive; there’s little chance this money is ever recouped, and that presumed aim seems beside the point. It’s worth remembering that when we talk about high unemployment in poor communities, we’re not just discussing a paucity of jobs but places in which people are actively pushed out of the workforce. There’s going to be a ceiling to how much can be done to fix this as long as long as our criminal policy works the way it does.
If you were an ex-con who somehow manages to find employment despite your record, and you’re making under $20,000 a year with two-thirds of that disappearing before you even saw it, what would be the practical upside for having legitimate employment at all? Wouldn’t someone decide they might be better off hugging a corner? As precarious as that may be in the long-term — future arrest, physical danger, etc. — the pittance you earn isn’t going to be fined to the point where you won’t be able to survive.