CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Parents can’t pay child support if they’re in jail or if they’re convicted felons.
That’s the rationale behind a bill unanimously passed by the West Virginia Senate on Tuesday. The bill would ease the punishments for knowingly failing to pay child support.
Currently, if a parent knowingly fails to pay child support for a year it can become a felony offense, bringing the parent a sentence of one to three years in prison.
The bill passed by the Senate would change the crime to a misdemeanor and change the punishment to home confinement. The bill mandates that anyone sentenced to home confinement must find a job or register with Workforce West Virginia for job training. Although the punishments are more lenient, unpaid child support would become a criminal offense after six months rather than after one year.
The bill was sparked by a discussion in the Senate committee on child poverty in March.
At that meeting, the Rev. Matthew Watts, a community leader on Charleston’s West Side, said that sending non-paying parents to prison was only ensuring that the payments to children don’t get made.
“In my neighborhood I’ve got guys who work for me,” Watts said. “They come to me begging for a job and they say, ‘If I don’t get child support by Friday I’m going to go to the regional jail for 45 days.’ This is one of the most draconian, backward ap-proaches to trying to get non-supporting fathers to pay child support.”
Sen. Donald Cookman, a co-sponsor of the bill and a former state judge, said that he has sent non-paying fathers to prison, but it is always a judge’s last resort.
“The obvious problem with that is there’s no support that can be paid by somebody that’s in the penitentiary,” Cookman said. “So that person is being supported by the state, the mother is being supported by the state and the child is being supported by the state.”
The bill institutes graduated sentencing so that a second offense would be a misdemeanor with a maximum of one year in jail, and a third offense would be a felony with a minimum of one year in prison.
Cookman said that eliminating the felony conviction on the first and second offenses is important. A felony conviction makes it much more difficult for an offender to get a job after a sentence is over, further lessening the likelihood that they will be able to make support payments.
Cookman acknowledged that many of the people who end up in prison for failure to pay child support are unlikely to pay it even if they aren’t sent to jail. But he said giving them a felony conviction just makes it much more difficult for them to find a job and pay support should they reform their ways in the future.