By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON, Oct 14 The Obama administration, in
its final weeks, plans to ease the legal obligations on
prisoners to pay for child support while they are locked up,
targeting practices that critics say can saddle ex-convicts with
The regulatory changes, if put in place, would give
President Barack Obama something more to show for his efforts to
reform the U.S. criminal justice system, a legacy issue for the
Democrat whose time in office ends on Jan. 20.
As the first black president of a nation that incarcerates a
disproportionately large number of black and Latino men, Obama
has made it a priority to address problems that make it
difficult for released inmates to reenter society.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity
because the new rules are not final, expressed confidence they
would be completed before Obama leaves office.
The rules would require that prisoners be allowed to lower
the amount of child support they pay in prison, with the goal of
preventing large debts that inmates struggle to repay after
release and that can lead to reincarceration.
Some Republican critics have said such a change would let
parents flout their financial responsibilities. Republican
Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan last year
introduced a bill to block the administration from making such a
change. The bill did not become law.
A Republican House aide told Reuters the administration's
initiative would amount to a "backdoor effort" to avoid the
Criminal justice reform was supposed to be an area where
Republicans and Democrats could find common ground in 2016, but
legislative efforts have stalled.
As a result, the administration needs to move forward on its
own where it can, the White House official said.
"We are always happy to sit down and talk with Congress, but
at some point we have to move forward with what we know we are
legally permitted to do and what is right," the official said.
DEBTS PILE UP
Child-support programs require absent parents to send money,
usually to the spouse who has custody, to help raise their
children. For prisoners who have little or no income, regular
child-support payments can accumulate into unmanageable debts.
Just ask Glenn Martin. As a young father, he went to prison
for six years for armed robbery. While in prison, his child
support payments were increased to $400 a month from $50 a
month, even though he only earned about $40 a month.
When he was released, Martin told Reuters he faced a $50,000
civil judgment for back child support, including interest. He
said he tried to get that changed, but judges said state law did
not permit modifications for incarceration.
Martin went on to found a prison reform group,
JustLeadershipUSA. "We have two decades of evidence that says
that being tough just hasn't worked," he said.
"What it has done is further criminalize the people we
should be trying to move into the labor market."
Most states have changed their laws so that child support
payments for prisoners can be modified, but 14 states still do
not allow it or place major obstacles in the way.
The Obama administration issued draft regulations in late
2014 that would require states to allow prisoners to modify
their child support court orders, while also requiring state
courts to set orders based on prisoners' "actual" income.
States run their own child support enforcement programs, but
Washington sets nationwide standards and reimburses states for
66 percent of expenditures on the programs and provides
incentive payments to states based on meeting certain targets.
The final version of the draft rules, still not public, was
sent to the White House for review in July.
Supporters say the changes will help reduce prison
populations by preventing ex-convicts from accruing debts that
make it difficult for them to find legitimate jobs and increases
the likelihood they could face jail time over unpaid child
A 2010 administration survey found 51,000 federal prisoners
had child support orders, with almost 29,000 of the prisoners
behind on payments. The average amount owed was nearly $24,000.
"The child support system as it exists today in a lot of
ways has become ... a major driver of mass incarceration," said
Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Poverty to Prosperity
program at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Andrew Hay)