incarceration of child-support debtors in Massachusetts

Debt imprisonment still exists for child-support debtors.  According to a recent survey of county sheriffs, persons committed from the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court to incarceration facilities numbered about 800 per year from 2009 to 2011.  Almost all of these commitments to incarceration are likely to have been ordered for child-support debts.  About twenty-five times more men than women were incarcerated.  That’s consistent with the large gender bias against men in financial child-support orders plus apparent additional gender bias in propensity to incarcerate for child-support debt.

The Massachusetts figure for child-support commitments to incarceration is low relative to the corresponding figure for South Carolina.  Massachusetts and South Carolina have about the same number of child-support cases with arrears due.  High-quality data for South Carolina indicates that on average during the year 2005, about 1800 persons were in jail for child-support debts.  Since jail terms for child-support debt are typically considerably less than a year, the number of commitments to South Carolina jails for child-support debt was much higher than 1800 persons.  The Massachusetts figure of about 800 child-support commitments to incarceration per year is probably under five times less than the corresponding figure for South Carolina.  That large difference suggests that the Massachusetts figure may be significantly under-reporting the number of persons actually incarcerated for child-support debt.

Many possibilities exist for under-reporting of child-support incarcerations.  The Massachusetts child-support incarceration data doesn’t include data for the Boston Municipal Court.  The Boston Municipal Court’s jurisdiction includes paternity and child-support actions.  Incarcerations from that court apparently weren’t counted.  Sheriffs reported the number of incarcerations.  Incarcerations can proceed from a sheriff executing a warrant.  They can also occur as a result of a hearing to which the respondent appears of his or her own volition.  Whether the sheriffs counted incarcerations proceeding from the later circumstances isn’t clear.  Moreover, persons who are subject to child-support orders and are jailed are required to continue to make child-support payments while they are in jail.  That’s difficult in many cases.  Thus persons jailed on other charges can be kept in jail because they accumulate child-support arrears while they are in jail.  These persons are also effectively incarcerated for child-support debt.

Incarcerating persons for child-support debt is unjust and counterproductive.  The U.S. has 2.2 million persons in jails and prisons.  U.S. per capita incarceration is among the highest in the world and far higher than other high-income democracies.  Debt imprisonment is a particularly bad use of incarceration.  Persons incarcerated are deprived of opportunities to earn money to pay off debts.  Moreover, imprisoning child-support debtors deprives children of the most important form of child support: their parents’ loving physical presence in their lives.

The highly disproportionate imprisonment of men for child-support debt exacerbates deep gender inequalities.  Men have no reproductive rights.  Men have financial fatherhood legally forced upon them for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being confronted with unplanned biological parenthood.  Legally forcing financial fatherhood on men is bad enough.  Imprisoning men who find themselves buried under child-support debts is even worse.  Men who aren’t the biological father of the child can suffer such incarceration through both direct paternity judgments and default paternity judgments.  An additional injustice is the lack of public discussion of these issues.  The public silence is an astonishing and revealing social feat.

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Data: incarcerations from Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, 2001-2011 (Excel version).  Terry Brennan, an independent justice researcher, painstakingly requested and compiled these incarceration data.  He deserves honor and praise for his public service.

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