This is the final entry in a series of posts highlighting GCO’s report, A High Price to Pay: Recommendations for Minimizing Debt’s Role in Driving Recidivism Rates. The first entry provided an overview of the report, the second entry laid out causes of debt for people reentering society from prison, and the third entry details the consequences of debt for returning citizens .This final post summarizes what has been said so far and outlines recommendations for the state to implement.
It is in the state’s interest and in the interest of justice for returning citizens to pay debts and obligations owed to family members, victims, courts, and criminal justice agencies. Children need financial support from parents who have been incarcerated, victims ought to receive just compensation for losses and damages they have suffered, and courts and criminal justice agencies should be reimbursed for services that they provide. Nonetheless, for many people reentering society after a period of incarceration, debts and the inability to earn money while in prison create serious obstacles to a successful transition.
It is not uncommon for returning citizens to leave prison owing tens of thousands of dollars in child support arrears, restitution, court fines, fees, and surcharges to criminal justice agencies. Unrealistic terms for repaying these debts can discourage them from paying anything at all and encourages returning citizens to engage in the illegal, underground economy as a means of earning an income. Such actions result in probation or parole violations and may result in re-incarceration, the ultimate measure of recidivism.
Enforcing the repayment of debts and obligations without considering the needs and financial circumstances of returning citizens works contrary to the interests of all stakeholders involved. At least 95 percent of those who enter state prisons will return to society at some point, and these citizens often struggle to provide for their own basic needs upon release, much less service the debt they have incurred as a result of their conviction. Simply affording rent payments, buying food and clothing, and covering transportation expenses can be remarkably difficult for a person with a criminal record. The state needs to take this into consideration and set realistic terms for returning citizens to pay current obligations and repay debts, while at the same time establishing a reliable, coordinated, and systematic approach for the collection of money that is due. Such reform would increase the amount of money received by families, victims, courts, and criminal justice agencies, while decreasing the costs associated with recidivism.
The state of Georgia should consider implementing the following recommendations as a means of encouraging returning citizens to repay their debts and obligations while taking into consideration their need to be successfully reintegrated and reestablished within the community:
Identify offenders with child support involvement upon entry to prison
The state should identify offenders with child support responsibilities upon entry to prison by electronically matching the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) and Division of Child Support Services (DCSS) agency caseloads using common identifiers such as social security numbers and birth dates. This data match will allow the DCSS to provide pertinent information to incarcerated non-custodial parents concerning their child support obligation(s), as well as identify those who need to establish paternity and/or child support orders but have not already done so.
Provide child support information and services to parents during their incarceration
Once identified, the DCSS should inform incarcerated non-custodial parents of the amount of their child support obligation(s), notify them periodically of the amount their arrears have accrued, work with them to develop a plan for meeting these obligations upon release, and inform them of the incentives available to them through the state for consistent payment of support.
Provide a 90-day grace period to ease the transition phase
Upon release, the court and DCSS should automatically review the amount of child support returning citizens can pay on a case-by-case basis. Those who have no means of paying anything at that time should be given a grace period of 90 days before having to pay their obligations and repay debt. This grace period will provide them time to find a job, housing, transportation, and other essential needs that can enable them to meet their obligation. After the 90 days, those who still cannot pay their child support orders should be referred to the Georgia Fatherhood Program (GFP) or a Child Support Problem Solving Court (PSC) to receive additional help in finding a job and meeting their obligations.
Limit amount of wages to be garnished by the state
For returning citizens who have a job and are able to pay some amount of child support, the court should determine on a case-by-case basis the amount of wages to be garnished from their paycheck. The court should take into consideration such factors as the returning citizen’s income, cost of living, and other dependents that he or she is taking care of. The state should set a ceiling of 50 percent as the maximum percentage of wages to be withheld from a returning citizen – something which a third of the states have already done.
Forgive fines, fees, and surcharges owed to the state
The state should consider incentivizing returning citizens to pay child support and restitution by forgiving (or waiving) all or some of the fines, fees, and surcharges owed to the state for those who meet their monthly obligations. Forgiving these expenses in exchange for consistent payments would encourage greater compliance among returning citizens, which means that families and victims would receive more money in the long run. The state should tie participation in reparative activities as a condition for receiving these benefits, including drug treatment services, GFP, a PSC, or community service projects.
Reinstate driver’s licenses that were suspended for non-payment of child support
The state should lift driver’s license suspensions for returning citizens’ whose licenses were suspended because they were more than 60 days in arrears in making payments in full for current support, periodic payments on a support arrearage, or periodic payments on a reimbursement for public assistance. To maintain driving privileges, the state should require that returning citizens be actively seeking a job or actively working, and that they consistently pay child support according to their means.
Forgive arrears and interest owed to the state
The state should forgive arrears and interest owed to the state in order to motivate obligors to comply with long-term payment plans, to eliminate uncollectible debt, to facilitate case closure where appropriate, and to help families become more self-sufficient. To receive this benefit, the state should require that returning citizens make a set number of consecutive payments in exchange for a set percentage of arrears and interest owed to the state to be forgiven. Returning citizens should also have a determined minimum amount of arrears to participate in the debt compromise program.
Designate a single agency to track and consolidate returning citizens’ debts
One agency should be designated to track and consolidate individual returning citizens’ debts in a centralized tracking system and ensure that it remains updated as the person travels through the criminal justice system and is released into the community. This agency should be responsible for collecting all offense-related debt and disbursing funds according to the priority set by the federal and state government. Regular updates concerning the total amount of debt owed and expected dates and amounts of repayment should be sent to returning citizens, victims, courts, and criminal justice agencies. Courts and criminal justice agencies should use this information to establish realistic repayment plans for returning citizens based on their financial situation.
 We realize that some will be frustrated by our use of the term “returning citizen” in this report and would prefer to see us use a more familiar term such as “ex-offender.” Our use of the term “returning citizen” is intended not as a political statement but as an acknowledgement that almost all offenders will return to our community at some point in the future and that it is in our best interest to think of offenders in that light, as our thinking will shape how we treat them during incarceration and what we expect of them upon release.
 Offense-related debt does not include child support, which is collected and tracked by DCSS and cannot be consolidated with restitution, fines, fees, and surcharges. Nonetheless, the amount of child support that has been collected should also be tracked by the agency that is consolidating offense-related debts, because the amount that goes toward child support (which must be paid first in priority according to federal law) impacts the amount that can be paid toward these other debts.
To view the endnotes included within the recommendations section of the report, please click here.
***Edit to the report: May 6, 2015
At the time of writing the report, the author was unaware that Georgia already has a detailed debt reduction program in place to assist indigent non-custodial parents who owe arrears to the state. The Division of Child Support Services’ (DCSS) State Debt Reduction Program (SDRP) provides non-custodial parents the ability to have a significant percentage of their state-owed arrears reduced if an agent determines that:
(1) “Good cause” existed for the nonpayment of the public assistance debt;
(2) Repayment or enforcement of the debt would result in substantial and unreasonable hardship for the parent owing the debt;
(3) The non-custodial parent is currently unable to pay the debt;
(4) The non-custodial parent is making regular payments of current child support, regardless of the amount.
The amount that eligible non-custodial parents can have their arrears reduced depends upon the amount they owe. Those with a greater amount of arrears owed to the state are eligible to have a greater percentage reduced (with the exception of those who owe less than $100, who can have their entire state-owed arrears balance waived). For example, non-custodial parents with state-owed arrears balances of $9,000 or greater can have their arrears waved or reduced by 75 percent, so long as they pay the remaining 25 percent owed in a lump sum payment or in 24 monthly installments.[i]
While Georgia has a detailed debt reduction program in place, it appears that the participation in the program is limited. In 2014, only 349 out of the 354,427 total non-custodial parents ordered to pay child support in Georgia entered into the plan, based on the 30 DCSS offices that reported.[ii]* More should be done to enroll struggling returning citizens with child support arrears owed to the state into the program. One way the state can do this is by promoting it within the Fatherhood Program and Child Support Problem Solving Courts (PSCs), which returning citizens will be likely to participate in.
[i] Division of Child Support Services, “State Debt Reduction Guidelines,” Employee Reference Guide – Standard Operating Procedure 251, Email Release May 24, 2013.
[ii] Erica Thornton, Manager of the Policy and Paternity Unit, Division of Child Support Services, Georgia Department of Human Services, email message to author, February 3, 2015; Georgia Department of Human Services, “Division of Child Support Services: Fact Sheet,” Revised November 2014.
*While not all 354,427 non-custodial parents ordered to pay child support in Georgia owe arrears to the state, the large figure suggests that there may be numerous non-custodial parents (particularly those reentering society from prison) who do (or should) qualify for the program, but are currently being overlooked.