The New Debtors' Prisons


Over at, Wendy McElroy says the way the judicial system treats "deadbeat dads" has essentially recreated debtors' prison. An excerpt:

An amazing lack of data surrounds some basic questions: How many "deadbeat dads" are in the correctional system? Do they refuse to pay or are they unable to do so?

…..for almost 30 years, an army of civil servants and government officials have spent billions of dollars to track down "deadbeat dads." Yet even such basic and easily collected data as how many have been jailed is difficult to find.

The DOJ states that 2,078,570 people were incarcerated "in Federal or State prisons or in local jails" as of June 30, 2003. The crimes for which people were incarcerated are sorted into four categories: Violent, Property, Drug, Public-order. There is no category for "deadbeat dads." Indeed, the local family courts that sentence fathers for non-payment generally do so on "contempt of court" charges; that is, the fathers are in contempt of a court-ordered payment. This makes their cases difficult to sort out from other contempt charges.

To my knowledge, there is no national data on the number of "deadbeat dads" incarcerated on "contempt" for non-payment.
The numbers are important. Prison populations are growing rapidly even as crime rates continue to sharply decline. According to the DOJ, the number of people incarcerated rose by 130,700 or by "2.9% from midyear 2002." It is important to identify categories of nonviolent prisoners whose release pose no threat to society.

Fathers who have been imprisoned because of an inability to pay are perfect candidates for release. Indeed, their continued incarceration comes close to establishing a de facto debtors' prison ? an institution supposedly abolished more than 200 years ago by President Adams.

Matt Welch wrote a great feature for Reason's February issue about how the state of California couldn't really care less if you are even the dad when it's trying to crack down on "deadbeat dads." And I wrote a piece questioning the entire logic and efficacy of the federal child-support enforcement system way back in our June 1996 issue.

NEXT: Fog of Battle, Part MMMCCCXXXIII

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  1. Actually, the deadbeat dad imprisonment is worse than debtors prison.

    Debtors prisons made sense in their day as it was presumed that an individuals extended family would ransom them from prison by paying off their debts. Families felt a moral obligation to bail out their relatives even at a very hight cost to themselves. Putting someone in debtors prison usually resulted in the payment of the debt. The system was harsh by modern standards but it worked.

    Today, families and friends feel little moral obligation to pay family members economic debts and in most cases would not have the resources to do so anyway. Unlike debtor’s prison, throwing “deadbeat” dads into prison doesn’t produce payment on the debt.

    The current system has all the meanness of debtor’s prison without any of the efficacy.

  2. Shannon brings up a good point. Though I don’t think it has as much to do with friends and families being less willing to help our a person in need (I know for a fact that if needed, my family, at least, would be at my side), but the stigma of the deadbeat dad. It’s one thing to help a family member’s debt because they tried to feed their family or they got wiped out in an investment, quite another if they were simply not paying child support (sometimes they can’t, I know).

    Deadbeat dads are lower than a fat smoker in today’s society. But heck, “It’s for the children!”

  3. I do not mean to say that people that don’t pay child support aren’t bad, just that there are other reasons than changing interpersonal relationships that one would be unwilling to pay a deadbeat dad’s debt.

  4. When do we get prisons for moms who deny visitation rights?

  5. More reason to practice safe sex.

  6. When do we get prisons for social workers who yank kids for made-up reasons?

  7. When do we get prisons for moms who deny visitation rights?

    Right after they open the ones for their live-in boyfriends, sponging off sugar mama’s back-door alimony. This is intentional exaggeration, but when fathers protest such arrangements, courts often turn a deaf ear, even if Dad would like to teach his kids that cohabitation is immoral.

    No, I’m neither divorced, nor a father. I have some friends, though.


  8. James, don’t despair. The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-273) has been on the books for almost 8 years. Let’s enjoy the small victories.

    That poor guy’s check must have looked funny with parsley all over it. 🙂


  9. I met a guy once who never worked more than two weeks at any one job. The moment his new employer sent in his SS# to the government, they big computer zeroed in on him and started garnishing his wages to the point where he decided it wasn’t work working. It was absurd, but it was all the life he had and it probably wasn’t ever going to change.

    There’s no point in whining about it, really. It’s one of those things that will be with us until our civilization collapses in exhaustion, like the sugar tariffs or the Stratgic Helium Reserve, part of the accumulated dead weight of generations of political pandering. He was an okay guy; I like to think that maybe he found a cash job somewhere the big computer can’t find him. We should all be so lucky.

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