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Child support enforcement: Incarceration as the last resort penalty for nonpayment of support

Date Added to Library: 
Thursday, February 1, 2018 - 14:36
Individual Author: 
Solomon-Fears, Carmen
Smith, Alison M.
Berry, Carla
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Published Date: 
Published Date (Date): 
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Congressional Research Service
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The Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program was signed into law in 1975 (P.L. 93-647) as a federal-state program to enhance the well-being of families by making child support a reliable source of income. The CSE program is based on the premise that both parents are financially responsible for their children. The CSE program is operated in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and by several Indian tribes or tribal organizations. State CSE programs have at their disposal a wide variety of methods by which to obtain child support obligations. In addition, states under their own authority and the authority of their courts can use the threat of incarceration and/or actual incarceration. Nonpayment of support may subject a noncustodial parent to criminal sanctions in three situations: (1) a finding of contempt of court for failure to obey a court’s child support order, (2) prosecution under a state criminal nonsupport statute, or (3) prosecution under federal criminal penalties for nonpayment of child support. Contempt of court is classified as either “civil” or “criminal.” Civil contempt occurs when an individual willfully disobeys a court order or rule. Criminal contempt occurs when an individual interferes with the ability of the court to function properly. Judges can sentence individuals to imprisonment upon a finding of contempt. Using jail as an option for nonpayment of child support has many implications: Are low-income noncustodial parents who are unable to fulfill their child support obligations penalized for being poor? Should noncustodial parents charged with civil contempt of court be entitled to an attorney? Should noncustodial parents whose only offense is nonpayment of child support be incarcerated in settings known to be violent and dangerous? Should incarcerating noncustodial parents be eliminated as an option due to the high costs associated with incarceration? This report includes an Appendix that indicates that all 50 states and the District of Columbia have criminal penalties for nonpayment of child support. Table A-1 shows state statute citations and the maximum penalties associated with nonpayment of child support. (Author abstract) 

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