CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Easing the penalties on people who fail to pay child support would seem to be an odd strategy to use to alleviate child poverty.
But that’s what was discussed at a West Virginia Senate committee on child poverty on Wednesday. And that discussion is likely to lead to legislation that will have bipartisan support.
The committee heard from Rev. Matthew Watts, a community leader from Charleston’s West Side, who described a situation where a parent fails to pay child support, is sent to jail, loses any source of income he or she may have had and then the child has no hope of getting support.
“We just always think that punishing somebody is going to get them to change their behavior,” Watts said. “What we’re doing is we’re punishing the innocent person. We’re taking their parent away from them…the child is already poor, right? The family doesn’t have any money and then we’re gonna literally put their mother or father in prison or in jail.”
In West Virginia if a court finds that someone willfully failed to pay child support, they can be sentenced to jail for up to 6 months, or until the debt is paid, whichever comes first. If a debt goes unpaid for a year, failure to pay child support can become a felony offense and a person is sentenced to one to three years in prison. Jail sentences can be imposed in most states for failing to pay child support, although sentences vary widely. In North Carolina the maximum sentence for failing to pay is 45 days, while in Idaho the maximum sentence is 14 years.
Sen. Donald Cookman, a former judge, said that the current law needs to be changed.
“I’ve sent people to the penitentiary because of that and there’s got to be a better way,” Cookman said. “We also pay to incarcerate them and take care of their children. This really needs to be rethought as quickly as it can be rethought.”
Overcrowding in West Virginia’s prisons is at crisis levels. A bill is working its way through the legislature that attempts to halt the growth in the state’s rising prison population.
Watts said that serial non-payers of child support should be sentenced to home confinement instead of jail so that they can look for work to pay the back child support.
“You can get furloughed to go fill out a job application, you can get furloughed to go and get a job but until you’re back in the good graces of paying your child support payment, we’re going to restrict your movement,” Watts said.
Cookman and Sen. Corey Palumbo, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said they expect to introduce a bill by the end of the week that would move punishments toward home confinement and away from jail sentences.
Sen. Mike Hall, the leader of Senate Republicans, said he would likely be supportive of the bill.
“All you’re doing is ensuring there will never be child support,” Hall said of the current law. “That’s just one of those that just doesn’t make any sense at all.”
The committee also discussed another slightly unorthodox tweak that they hoped could help people find jobs.
Sen. William Laird said that West Virginia suspends or revokes the drivers’ licenses of 54,000 people each year for not paying fines.
He noted that in many parts of the state being unable to drive usually means you can’t get a job.
“The bus schedule is pretty skinny in some of the rural areas in West Virginia and if you don’t have a drivers’ license, you might as well stay home and watch TV,” Laird said.
Laird said that revoking licenses for failing to pay small fines was akin to criminalizing a portion of the population and throwing them into poverty.
West Virginia’s unemployment rate is 7.4 percent, slightly below the national average. About 25 percent of young people in the state, between ages 16 and 24, are both unemployed and not in school, according to West Virginia Kids Count.
Laird has proposed a bill providing amnesty to anyone whose license has been suspended for failing to pay a fine that is at least 10 years old. That bill will be considered by the Senate Transportation Committee on Friday.