Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Use of county jail by Smith County for child support scofflaws contributes to overincarceration

Smith County District Judge Carole Clark writes in to the blog Smith Counth: Tell the Truth to explain under what circumstances the county incarcerates probationers for non-payment of child support, a practice the county began in 2002. The optional program puts child support scofflaws on a "civil" probation that uses the county jail to enforce payments. Judge Clark said the program is:
aimed at the thirty percent of the population who do not pay their child support as ordered and for which there had not previously been adequate tools to enforce these obligations. The program uses laws currently in place which allow for people who have been found in contempt for failure to pay child support when able to do so to be on probation. This probation is civil probation but has many of the same requirements as criminal probation. They report to a probation officer regularly, pay a fee to support the program, work and pay their support.

The program began with 100 people and one probation officer. It now has six probation officers and appx. 1100 persons. The history of this program is quite amazing. For many of the persons on probation, working and paying support are new experiences and many owe tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent support.

If someone on probation does not comply with the probation requirements, their probation officer , after attempts to remediate the situation fail, will ask the Office of the Attorney General to file papers with the court requesting the probation be revoked. The maximum jail time is 180 days.

The most common conditions of probation I see violated are reporting to probation and paying the child support. An arrest warrant is issued and when arrested the person is brought to court on a Monday or Thursday afternoon. I see people twice a week as the law requires me to see them quickly.

If after hearing, I find a person did violate their probation and has no reasonable excuse for doing so, some jail time is awarded as a means of "getting their attention." Some of these people are not regulars in the jail and for them, it is usually a "wake up call." For some, unfortunately, jail for violation of probation is a familiar story.

After a time in jail, I call the person over to court and let them go to the AIC for more intensive monitoring. However, a number of these folks violate criminal laws while they are not paying child support and I cannot deal with their case until the criminal case is handled.

If AIC [ed. note: the Alternative Incarceration Program, discussed here] is appropriate, I send them. The results are very gratifying. Many are now working and paying. Last Friday, 149 were in the AIC. Not all are child support. Of those, 110 were working. Many have never worked at a legal job.

If AIC doesn't work, the law provides referral to the DA's office can be made for criminal prosecution for a state jail felony.

All in all, the programs are collecting in excess of 3.5 million dollars per year, plus fees for probation, court costs and child support.
Here's the problem: It costs more than $6,000 to incarcerate someone in the Smith County Jail for 180 days, more than $7,000 if they're housed in rented beds. So if the county jail handles a significant volume of extra inmates revoked under this "civil probation," there's an extra cost to the taxpayers in addition to the benefits to child support recipients.

If prosecutors put scofflaws behind bars for a state jail felony, that's a mandatory two-year sentence at an additional cost to taxpayers of $32,000. The county doesn't pay that money, but taxes paid by Smith County residents sure do, and it doesn't matter to the taxpayer, at the end of the day, which governmental hand is in their pocket.

Judge Clark's rendition of the process has her using jail to "get the attention" of civil probation violators the very first time they fail to meet their obligations and come before their court. I'm sure that does get their attention, but it's a big contributing factor to local jail overcrowding, and it's a lot more aggressive approach than other counties take with the same population. After all, if you incarcerate a person for any significant period of time, they leave jail unemployed and with no income to make child support payments.

It makes a lot more sense to use the AIC to keep these folks employed than in jail, even if the county has to pay their wages. Think about it: Is it worth up to $40,000 to the taxpayers to force compliance with child support payments that wouldn't come close to that amount over the same period? If you're going to do that, a cheaper approach might be for the county to just pay the child support and place a lien on future income.

I commend Judge Clark for explaining the program to a local blog, and recognize the good intentions behind the use of the county jail in this fashion - but they are the type of intentions with which the road to hell is paved, as these offenders have become a significant contributor to local jail overcrowding. Now that the AIC is in place (it wasn't when the program started), it should be the first-line sentence for these offenders instead of requiring "get attention" jail time. And given the cost of incarceration, it would behoove the county to create public works jobs, WPA style, compared to the cost of incarcerating those same folks.

This is a great example of how much of the overincarceration in Smith and other counties is mostly volitional, based on choices made by elected officials, not on population increases or big-picture demographics.

Getting people to pay child support is smart. Filling up Texas jails and prisons with non-criminals isn't. There has to be a way to achieve goals in civil society without only ever resorting to incarceration as a stick to compel behaviors we want.

RELATED: See "Greg Abbott's Cash for Kids," from the Austin Chronicle.


Anonymous said...

No no no no no no. This is just soft on crime liberal BS. Decriminalize these, and where do we stop? Why can activist judges make these decisions when the elected legislature has spoken and the people want these laws enforced instead of ignored?

Yeah, just kidding. Unfortunately, this program makes too much sense for many courthouses, and the above are the scare-tactic arguments that it will face when people attempt to implement it elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

What's that saying about trying to get blood from stones?

Anonymous said...

What's that saying about trying to get blood from stones?

I don't know, but if it's anything like squeezing blood from a turnip, it's tough!

Anonymous said...

I like this website. I've got to share my story. I was unfortunately one of those targeted for back child support in Smith County. It's unfortunate because immediately after my ex-wife and I separated, we both left Smith County! This was almost 10 yrs ago, and I had no clue about the jurisdiction. I had to change careers, and there were some periods when I was out of work. This is when I racked up the back child support. It got up over $10k. Meanwhile, my ex-wife remarried within 2-3 months after the divorce was finalized. Finally I got steady work, and it was just at that time that I received a summons. I showed up in court and was placed on probation. This was a little over 3 yrs ago. I was living in Harris County. The judge ordered me to show up in Smith County once a month to pay my probation officer. I was able to go to it a couple of times, but it became prohibitive. I wasn't making enough money to afford the gas there and back, plus pay the fees to the probation officer and stay on top of child support. Another hearing was scheduled, and I explained it to the judge (Judge Kent, I think, but can't swear to it...). I also explained that my present wife is disabled and unable to work, and I am responsible for taking care of her, her stepdaughter, and the son than she and I have had together. The judge didn't care about the distance; she said people came in from Louisiana all the time, so why should I be any different? I felt like I was being punished for living outside the county. That day, I was required to go to my bank and get a cashiers check for about $300 or they would issue a warrant for my arrest. This, on top of the gas, etc. was killing me. I hired an attorney at that time "to keep me out of jail". I paid $1000 and figured he had resolved things with Smith County. Now I don't think he did a damn thing. Then my employer had layoffs. They offered to spare me, however, if I would relocate to another state. I did, and spent the past 3 years there. During this time, I have worked down over half of the back child support. Last year, the state increased my support by $50, to be applied to back child support. I had no problem with that. I made good with the company, and applied for a job which would allow me to transfer back to Texas. I got the job and came back at the end of last year. Everything seemed to be going well. I figured the Smith County Probationary stuff had resolved itself, and with my back child support now being below $5000, was excited about getting that monkey off my back. I've gotten to see my children again, and was excited about getting to build some kind of relationship with them. Now I've started getting calls from the probation unit again! I said I'm caught up; the account is even scheduled to go on positive status on my credit report this year. They say yeah, but there's an outstanding warrant and if I get stopped in Texas, I'll spend up to 10 days in jail while they drag me back to Smith County to appear before the judge. They want me to come in on my own recognizance to address the contempt of court charges. Uggh! I can see it now -- I go up there, don't have much to say other than that I have a great job, am working down the back child support, building a relationship with my children, and don't have the resources to make the trip to a county none of us have lived in for 9 years! I'm pretty sure the judge will throw me in the clink, and I'll lose everything.... I think about it all the time now........Thanks, Smith County! /sarcasm I’m sorry for such a long comment, but I’m curious as to whether or not there are others out there with a story similar to my own.

Anonymous said...

NO more money for jails!!! How about looking at Rehab, Helping those inmates with true documented mental illness. The stats say 30 percent of the population have mental disorders. They are not criminals they are sick.

Anonymous said...

I just happened to stumble on this blog.. lol sad stories... yeah right.. get blood out of stone, work to far away to pay for gas to pay child support, complaining about judges... come on. My ex owes over $20,000, oh he paid a few payments over the last 9 yrs totaling up to around $1000, he is self employed is what he always calls his job. He spends most of his time in and out of what I call the Smith County bed and breakfast (low risk facility) for DWI, drug, theft and more. All his convictions are in Smith County and my child support was in a nearby county where we had lived years ago. I got smart and moved to Smith County and transfred my ATG support. I knew it would take a year or so to transfer my case, not like I was getting child support anyway. Having papers served in another county is hard to have done because the sheriff dept does it and it isn't a top priority, they try to serve papers at the address and of course (just don't open the door). By moving to Smith County, I was able to help the justice system in getting everything into the same county. After being served in the Smith County bed and breakfast, he was released and has now made two child support payments with a little help form Judge Clarks system and the ATG, and will be on probation for the next 10 years or go to jail, then process will start over again with more penalties. His child support has been raised with inflation, plus additional payments for health ins and with added intrest. His child support has doubled. I know if the tables were turned I would have rather paid the $175 a month. I carry the health insurance on my child buy school uniforms and have never missed a sporting or school event. I am just a real ordinary parent. You do what you have to. You work extra jobs at Christmas ect. And I make less than 23,000 a year. And this is my third child. So you know there is no excuse for responsibility. My child has always been told the truth about the father and has not seen him in 3 years, which is one of the few times in a life time. I have raised my child, which by the way is very well rounded and will go to college just like the others. He understands that his father has problems and issues that only strict supervision can help with drug testing once a month and probation may save his life. We consider the child support checks a surprise in the mail. Trust me we do not count on them, they are just a surprise bonus. So I’m sure by now you can understand why I think excuses are bull, go to church, get a job, take care of your kids and grow up. It takes a real person to do this job, and there are plenty of job places willing. So, poor adults that have to help pay for a child to eat, sleep and be clothed and get a real job. Tough… get neutered or spayed, you deserve every minute and penny you have to spend at with that probation officer and jail mate. I don’t trust the justice system. If you want something done, do it your self. I just used the system to my child advantage. That’s life! Deal with it!

Anonymous said...

First, I want to commend the mom that wrote the previous comment. Her children will be very proud and thankful for her efforts. Second, I am the writer of the post from 1/11. I have paid over $40k in child support over the past 6 yrs. It is taken out of my regular paycheck in a job that I have kept for 4 years. If you ask the attorney general's office, they will tell you that I am up-to-date. Yet I still spent a day in jail recently. Why? Because of outstanding reporting fees. I won't go into the details, but - I just want it to be clear that I do pay my child support, and the AG's office will say the same. I started out $5000 "in the hole" on the day the divorce was finalized, and have been trying to dig out ever since.

Anonymous said...

I am a single parent w/ two children and receive no child support whatsoever. At the same time, I agree, you can't squeeze blood from a turnip. If the daddy is locked up how can he pay? That's righth daddy. Any man can be a daddy, but it takes a "real man to be a Father" My father is my children's father. That's who looks out for them & makes sure to cover the load when I can not. I thabk GOD for him. And when it's all said & done, ONLY GOD sits on the throne & is the Judge. Men that son't want to take care of their children will answer to GOD. I am in a situation where my new husband has been put on child support in Smith County and the child may not even be his. Rather than give him a paternity test, the Judge gives him jail time & probation. I can agree w/ enforcing child support payments, because all us single parents(mother or father) could use some help. But make sure you are enforcing these orders on the correct parent & not the assumed parent. Start being fair in Court & stop looking at things one sidely. Because again GOD still sits on the throne & these parents will have to answer to him one day & so will you....

Anonymous said...

If they think the way they serve food in the jail is good for us they are crazier than they look because what they serve for breakfast I would not even feed to my dog or cat and they've got the money to feed us better but that's money taken out of their pockets and party money they use and they think if they serve bad food then it's teaching us a lesson to not to come back but some people due things to get in their because they know they can get a place to stay and food because a lot of them have nothing better to do but except to stay in trouble or they can't get a job because of the government is too stingy with funds or the jobs want too much crap to get a job.

Anonymous said...

Hello I'm.from Dallas Texas and my daughter and her mother stays junk Tyler Smith county I was on childsupport in 08-1-10 and now.I owe $10,217 I was so angry when I got out on childsupport cause I had to lay back.child'supoort.of 3500 and I didn't even have a job I showed the Smith county my documents of the past five year I been working... I'm paying $544 for one child and I dnt even have a job. I got lock up for missing my court date and was junk jail for 8 days until j finally saw a job now I'm in probation. I swear I hate this makes me want to sign my rights over anf stop paying childsupport I haven't since my daughter in a while and she's barely two. I have a other one on the way and ifs a boy. She's 7 months pregnant I wonder if I can get another court date so I can lower my childsupport. I'm paying so much I'm not even making enough to put food on the table. And I have another kid on the way I want to find a really good lawyer un Tyler who can help me with my case I need hell. Not even my daughter has my last name nd I'm on child support nd I dnt even get to pick her up. I dnt do anything bad I dnt drink I dnt smoke. I just want to be able to get off child support nd be there for my two kids. I dnt deserve this. Im paying a lot of money and the judge didn't even let me show my documents of how much I make I have proof of every job I worked at. And shouldnt be paying that ridiculous amour of money. Help me pleaseeeee. I need a good lawyer who can help me fight my case....

mad dad said...

I pay but started off behind because the mother took the child out of county and did not tell me where. Now the crooks running this ripoff have adjusted my payments so I will never reduce the balance. . That's the folks that need to be put in jail.