By his own telling, the first time Walter L. Scott went to jail for failure to pay child support, it sent his life into a tailspin.
He lost what he called "the best job I ever had" when he spent two weeks in jail. Some years he paid. More recently, he had not. Two years ago, when his debt reached nearly $8,000 and he missed a court date, a warrant was issued for his arrest. By last month, the amount had more than doubled, to just over $18,000.
That warrant, his family now speculates, loomed large in Scott's death. On April 4, he was pulled over for a broken taillight, fled on foot and, after a scuffle with a police officer, was fatally shot in the back. The warrant, the threat of another stay behind bars and the potential loss of yet another job caused him to run, a brother, Rodney Scott, said.
"Every job he has had, he has gotten fired from because he went to jail because he was locked up for child support," said Scott, whose brother was working as a forklift operator when he died. "He got to the point where he felt like it defeated the purpose."
Walter Scott's death has focused attention not just on police violence, but on the use of jail to pressure parents to pay child support, a policy employed by many states today. Though the threat of jail is considered an effective incentive for people who are able but unwilling to pay, many critics assert that punitive policies are trapping poor men in a cycle of debt, unemployment and imprisonment.
The problem begins with child support orders that, at the outset, can exceed parents' ability to pay. When parents fall short, the authorities escalate collection efforts, withholding up to 65 percent of a paycheck, seizing bank deposits and tax refunds, suspending driver's licenses and professional licenses, and then imposing jail time.
"Parents who are truly destitute go to jail over and over again for child support debt simply because they're poor," said Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed a class-action lawsuit in Georgia on behalf of parents incarcerated without legal representation for failure to pay. "We see many cases in which the person is released; they're given three months to pay a large amount of money, and then, if they can't do that, they're tossed right back in the county jail."
There is no national count of how many parents are incarcerated for failure to pay child support, and enforcement tactics vary from state to state, as do policies such as whether parents facing jail are given court-appointed lawyers. But in 2009, a survey in South Carolina found that one in eight inmates had been jailed for failure to pay child support. In Georgia, 3,500 parents were jailed in 2010. The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey, reported last year that 1,800 parents had been jailed or given ankle monitors in two New Jersey counties in 2013. (The majority of noncustodial parents nationwide are men.)
Unpaid child support became a big concern in the 1980s and '90s as public hostility grew toward the archetypal "deadbeat dad" who lived comfortably while his children suffered. Child support collections were so spotty that in the late 1990s, new enforcement tools such as automatic paycheck deductions were used. As a result, child support collections increased significantly, and some parents rely heavily on aggressive enforcement by the authorities.
But experts said problems could arise when such tactics were used against people who had little money, and the vast majority of unpaid child support is owed by the very poor. A 2007 Urban Institute study of childsupport debt in nine large states found that 70 percent of the arrears were owed by people who reported less than $10,000 a year in income. They were expected to pay, on average, 83 percent of their income in childsupport -- a percentage that declined precipitously in higher income brackets.
In many jurisdictions, support orders are based not on the parent's actual income but on "imputed income" -- what they would be expected to earn if they had a full-time, minimum wage or median wage job. In South Carolina, the unemployment rate for black men is 12 percent.
The Obama administration is trying to change some of these policies, proposing to rewrite enforcement rules to require child support orders be based on actual income and consider the "subsistence needs" of the noncustodial parent, to bar states from allowing child support debt to accrue while parents are incarcerated, and to finance more job placement services for them.
"While every parent has a responsibility to support their kids to the best of their ability, the tools developed in the 1990s are designed for people who have money," said Vicki Turetsky, the commissioner of the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement. "Jail is appropriate for someone who is actively hiding assets, not appropriate for someone who couldn't pay the order in the first place."
Under a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, courts are not supposed to jail a defendant without a specific finding that he or she has the ability to pay. But that process does not always work as intended, especially when the client does not have a lawyer, advocates for the poor say.
In the Georgia class-action case, the plaintiffs were jailed in civil contempt-of-court proceedings in which they did not have lawyers. They included three veterans -- one who had paid $75,000 in child support but fell behind when he lost his civilian job because of combat-related stress and family deaths; a second who was mentally ill and had a letter from a Veterans Affairs doctor saying he was unable to work; and a third who was incarcerated despite having paid $3,796 toward his debt by working odd jobs.