A recent article about a woman from Texas who was sentenced for failing to pay her child support obligations has sparked a debate about whether incarcerating people who have gotten behind on bills makes sense.
The woman, Cheryl Walton, was charged with two counts of felony non-support of her children. After pleading guilty, a judge sentenced Walton to a suspended five-year term. The woman is also required to immediately pay $5,000 toward her back child support as well as continuing to pay an additional $270 per month during her five year sentence on top of her normal child support obligations to ensure her arrearage is paid in full.
Stories of parents skipping out on the obligations to the children they should be caring for are certainly irritating. On the one hand, deadbeat parents should be punished and forced to pay for the children they created, but on the other hand, creating a modern day debtors prison is not something states should so happily embrace.
It’s been more than two centuries since a person was allowed to be thrown into jail for being behind on debt payments, but that has not stopped states across the country from embracing the idea that parents who owe child support money ought to be locked up. Ohio has a similar law which allows prosecutors to charge a parent who is in arrears with a criminal offense and ultimately serve jail time.
Ohio law makes the situation dependent on the amount of child support owed, but the charge that a parent could face for being behind ranges from a misdemeanor to a felony. While this may seem exceedingly harsh, it is thankfully only a last resort. Before jail time, a parent can have his or her license suspended, have hunting and fishing licenses revoked, lose their professional licenses (doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc.) and even have tax returns confiscated by state authorities.
In cases where such actions are not enough or where the amount owed is too great, courts in Ohio have the power to charge parents with criminal actions. Not only does this power extend to those people living within the state, but courts can even request that a parent be extradited from another state to be brought before an Ohio court to face charges.
This kind of power has prompted concern by some who worry about the effectiveness of such a strict system of enforcement. While jailing non-paying parents — the vast majority of them men — does lead to payment in many cases, critics say that it unfairly penalizes poor and unemployed parents who have no ability to pay, even though federal law makes clear that a person must have “willfully” violated a court order before being incarcerated. How willful is it when you have no job and not financial resources?
If you find yourself facing the prospect of complicated divorce and have questions about your rights and options, contact an experienced Ohio family law attorney who can help guide you through the difficult process. Count on the expertise of Twinsburg family law attorney Carol L. Stephan.
Source: “Unable to pay child support, poor parents land behind bars,” by Mike Bunker, published at NBCNews.com.
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