The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a man who was imprisoned for a year for failing to pay almost $6,000 in child support payments. The court ruled that by jailing the man, his right to due process had been violated because no efforts were made to determine whether he had sufficient funds to make payments. Furthermore, the man was not told that his ability to make payments was critical in resolving the case.

The case has raised attention to an issue that experts call one of the biggest problems with child support enforcement programs. Instead of incarcerating someone who cannot pay child support, states like Maryland implement court-ordered employment programs, which help find work for such parents. While such programs do come with a cost, research shows that they can be cheaper than imprisoning a delinquent parent and also help to identify parents who actually do have jobs but have just been avoiding support payments.

While jail is often used as a threat to intimidate parents into paying, actual incarceration can make it more difficult for them to pay, says one expert. She continued, saying that courts also need to adopt better methods of evaluating a delinquent parent’s financial standing.

In many cases, she argued, parents who have recently lost their jobs and cannot pay are not reevaluated to see if they can still pay. While she approved of the Supreme Court’s ruling for its potential to lead to improved evaluation procedures, she said that states should adopt better methods of dealing with parents who cannot make child support payments.

Source: The Washington Post, “The other Supreme Court decision: It’s a slippery slope from provider to deadbeat,” Janice D’Arcy, 29 June 2011