Child Support Plan to Reduce Incarcerations

Fairfax County Del. Dave Marsden sponsored the program that will offer child-support delinquents a chance to avoid incarceration.
Fairfax County Del. Dave Marsden sponsored the program that will offer child-support delinquents a chance to avoid incarceration. (Robert A. Reeder)
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hundreds of Virginians convicted of failing to pay child support will be given a chance to stay out of jail under a bill approved recently by the General Assembly.

Fairfax County Del. Dave W. Marsden (D) sponsored the legislation, which establishes a pilot program that closely monitors convicted dodgers in the community instead of incarcerating them. At the court's discretion, participants entering the program will be required to work and pay off their debts gradually, with their progress checked closely by a state caseworker.

If offenders fail to make payments or follow specifics of the court order, they could be sent to jail. Participants will be released from the monitoring program when caseworkers determine they are fulfilling the court's terms.

The initiative will begin July 1 in four Virginia jurisdictions: Fairfax, Spotsylvania and Campbell counties and the city of Hampton. Marsden said the program could return money to custodial parents and reduce state jail costs.

Officials said they hope the program will relieve at least some pressure on jurisdictions with overcrowded jails by keeping some offenders in the community. Decisions on who is eligible will be made by judges at each jurisdiction's Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

In addition, state officials said the program will save Virginia money by keeping families out of some social service programs. Single parents often use programs such as welfare, state-subsidized child care and food stamps because absentee parents, most of them men, refuse or are unable to pay child support, officials said.

"When you put a guy in jail, you're not going to get anything out of him," said Jim Dedes, Fairfax County's director of court services. "Anything that gets money to the families makes a lot of sense. Jail is a great lever for getting guys to shape up, but if you can impact them before they're incarcerated, you really can't lose."

In all, state officials estimate the program, the Intensive Case Monitoring Program, will save Virginia $375,000 per year by its sixth year. In the first year, officials expect the program will cost $29,000 after factoring in estimated savings from other programs and jail costs.

"Even if we broke even, it would be worth it," Marsden said. "It has the chance to get people working again, contributing to the economy, and we could take a lot of pressure off our correctional facilities."

About 7,000 child-support delinquents were jailed in fiscal 2007. The average sentence for the civil offense was six months. That year, custodial parents in Virginia lost $2.4 billion in outstanding child support payments, said Nick Young, Virginia's director of child support enforcement.

Forty percent of people who are reported as child support dodgers do not pay their debts promptly and must be pursued by state officials. But officials say that many of those don't need jail time, just pressure from the court.

"For those who have just motivational problems or have been given lots of chances, this would be the last step," Young said. He added that program officials hope to steer about 30 percent of their convicted offenders to the program. "This would give them a hard push."

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