GCO’s latest report provides solutions that aim to minimize the role debt has in driving recidivism rates.
Offenders often leave prison owing tens of thousands of dollars in debt, creating serious obstacles to a successful reentry. The state expects returning offenders to pay these debts, though many struggle to simply find a job and a place to live.
Studies have shown average debt amounts in certain jurisdictions in the U.S. to be as high as $20,000 in child support arrears and between $500 and $2,000 in offense-related debt. Carrying an onerous amount of debt and having to immediately repay it puts tremendous financial pressure on recently released offenders. They face the threat of having their driver’s license suspended, having their wages garnished, and being re-incarcerated for failing to pay their obligations. These sanctions can discourage them from seeking legitimate employment and drive them to participate in the underground economy, leading them on a pathway back to prison.
Today, Georgia Center for Opportunity released a report titled A High Price to Pay: Recommendations for Minimizing Debt’s Role in Driving Recidivism Rates, which outlines several steps the state can take to encourage returning citizens to pay current obligations and repay debts in a realistic manner. Such action should result in more money going to support children and victims and result in fewer people ending up back behind bars.
The report’s recommendations include:
- Identify offenders with child support involvement upon entry to prison
- Provide child support information and services to parents during their incarceration
- Provide a 90-day grace period before indigent returning citizens have to pay their obligations and repay debts to ease the transition phase
- Limit the amount of wages to be garnished by the state
- Forgive fines, fees, and surcharges owed to the state for consistent payments of child support and restitution
- Reinstate driver’s licenses that were suspended for non-payment of child support
- Forgive arrears and interest owed to the state for a set number of consecutive payments of current child support***
- Designate a single agency to track and consolidate returning citizens’ debts
GCO will post a series of blogs that highlight different sections of the report, including the various factors that cause offenders to accrue debt, the effect debt can have in driving recidivism rates, and an in-depth look at the recommended policies.
***Edit to the report: May 6, 2015
At the time of writing the report, the author was unaware that Georgia already has a detailed debt reduction program in place to assist indigent non-custodial parents who owe arrears to the state. The Division of Child Support Services’ (DCSS) State Debt Reduction Program (SDRP) provides non-custodial parents the ability to have a significant percentage of their state-owed arrears reduced if an agent determines that:
(1) “Good cause” existed for the nonpayment of the public assistance debt;
(2) Repayment or enforcement of the debt would result in substantial and unreasonable hardship for the parent owing the debt;
(3) The non-custodial parent is currently unable to pay the debt;
(4) The non-custodial parent is making regular payments of current child support, regardless of the amount.
The amount that eligible non-custodial parents can have their arrears reduced depends upon the amount they owe. Those with a greater amount of arrears owed to the state are eligible to have a greater percentage reduced (with the exception of those who owe less than $100, who can have their entire state-owed arrears balance waived). For example, non-custodial parents with state-owed arrears balances of $9,000 or greater can have their arrears waved or reduced by 75 percent, so long as they pay the remaining 25 percent owed in a lump sum payment or in 24 monthly installments.[i]
While Georgia has a detailed debt reduction program in place, it appears that the participation in the program is limited. In 2014, only 349 out of the 354,427 total non-custodial parents ordered to pay child support in Georgia entered into the plan, based on the 30 DCSS offices that reported.[ii]* More should be done to enroll struggling returning citizens with child support arrears owed to the state into the program. One way the state can do this is by promoting it within the Fatherhood Program and Child Support Problem Solving Courts (PSCs), which returning citizens will be likely to participate in.
[i] Division of Child Support Services, “State Debt Reduction Guidelines,” Employee Reference Guide – Standard Operating Procedure 251, Email Release May 24, 2013.
[ii] Erica Thornton, Manager of the Policy and Paternity Unit, Division of Child Support Services, Georgia Department of Human Services, email message to author, February 3, 2015; Georgia Department of Human Services, “Division of Child Support Services: Fact Sheet,” Revised November 2014.
*While not all 354,427 non-custodial parents ordered to pay child support in Georgia owe arrears to the state, the large figure suggests that there may be numerous non-custodial parents (particularly those reentering society from prison) who do (or should) qualify for the program, but are currently being overlooked.