This article appears in the Summer 2017 "Giving People a Second Chance" newsletter.
By Jeannine Wiesner, Deputy District Attorney, Marion County Family Support Division, Concetta Schwesinger, Trial Team Leader, Marion County Family Support Division, and Janet Carlson, Marion County Commissioner
Senate Bill 682 was passed by the legislature and becomes effective on January 1, 2018. The legislation establishes a process to suspend child support obligations while an individual is in prison and upon reentry to the community.
When people are released from prison back to their home communities, they often have significant debt. While we all agree that parents need to support their children and be accountable, the situation often has the opposite effect – the large amount of debt appears insurmountable, the individual starts taking cash jobs, avoiding legitimate employment. Eventually this can lead to the individual getting involved in the same activities that put them in prison in the first place. The outcome is that the person goes back to prison and the child support obligation is on paper, but is never actually paid to the family. Everyone loses.
Senate Bill 682 creates a process where child care is suspended upon entry to prison under a rebuttable presumption of inability to pay. Under current law, if an incarcerated parent asks for a modification through the Oregon Child Support Program, they often qualify for a reduction or elimination of their child support order for the time they are incarcerated. However, for a variety of reasons, many individuals who are incarcerated do nothing or delay in making a request to modify their child support orders. The child care order that was in effect prior to incarceration continues to add up month after month. Senate Bill 682 modifies the child support order to $0, based on inability to pay, upon entry to prison.
When a person is released from prison, current law suspends child support payments for 60 days. However, on the 61st day, even if the individual had filed a modification in prison, the obligation in the child support order that was in effect prior to incarceration is restored at the same pre-prison payment level. For example, if a parent owed $300 per month prior to incarceration, on the 61st day, he or she would again owe $300 per month, even though we know significant criminal history can negatively impact finding a job at all, let alone with the same earning capacity that the parent had prior to incarceration. In fact, the Oregon Department of Corrections research found that people released from prison generally make only 40-50% of their prior income. Senate Bill 682 changes the current law to automatically reinstate child support to 50% of the court ordered amount on the 121st day after release, and provides a timeline for the child support program to review the calculations to ensure it reflects the parent's current earning capacity. This provides a more realistic timeframe for the reentering parent to find employment and also a more realistic obligation, in case the calculations review is not completed by the 121st day. This also puts Oregon's child support program in alignment with new federal regulations.
The process will involve a data match between the Oregon Department of Corrections and the Oregon Department of Justice. Within 30 days after the entity providing child support enforcement services is notified of an obligor's incarceration, a notice will be sent to the parties, advising that support will be suspended during incarceration unless a party objects. The objection must describe the resources of the obligor or other evidence that rebuts the presumption of inability to pay. A hearing will be set in front of an administrative law judge to determine the issue. If no objection is received, or if the administrative law judge finds that the presumption has not been rebutted, the Department of Justice will file the notice of suspension with the circuit court and discontinue billing on the case until 121 days after the parent has been released. At that time, support will be reinstated at 50% of the original amount. The entity responsible for child support enforcement services will then review the support order for purposes of further modification.
Senate Bill 682 came out of discussions in the Joint Interim Task Force on Reentry, Employment and Housing and was introduced by Senator Michael Dembrow, task force co-chair. It was endorsed by the task force and also by the Association of Oregon Counties. The bill's final language was developed by a workgroup involving the Oregon Department of Justice, the Oregon Department of Corrections, and county child support staff from local district attorneys' offices.
This legislation will assure that parents who are incarcerated will not reenter society owing child support debt that accrued while they were unable to pay it, which has been found to increase recidivism and reduce the chance that future support will be paid. We express appreciation to Senator Dembrow, Senator Jackie Winters who carried the bill on the Senate floor, and Kate Richardson from the Oregon Department of Justice, for their invaluable support in moving this important legislation forward.