This is the executive summary of a report on what social scientists and policy analysts have learned from their research on the interaction of issues in child support, criminal justice involvement, and challenges to successful reentry to the community after incarceration.
The issues addressed are 1) how child support obligations influence reintegration; 2) how incarceration impacts child-support repayment and debt; 3) what policies exacerbate the debt-recidivism link; and 4) which policies show promise in addressing this link. Overall, research indicates that child support obligations and debt adversely impact stable employment, because stricter child-support enforcement policies are linked to a decline in employment and earnings. This occurs because punishments for failure to pay child support may involve revocation of a drivers’ license and contempt of court enforcement. These punitive responses impact a person’s ability to obtain and sustain employment. Child support debt also puts pressure on family networks, decreasing contact and engagement with children and in-kind support. Some state and federal policies have addressed the reentry challenges of parents with child-support debt. Policies include providing coordinated assistance with child support modification and assistance in bringing child support payments to manageable levels. Many states and locales have experimented with debt-relief programs for both low-income parents and formerly incarcerated parents. Most of these policies focus on debt owed to the government. Evaluations of these policies have found that debt forgiveness is associated with lower debt burdens and more consistent and higher child support payments. These policies also show promise in improving family relationships. Recommendations are outlined for further state, local, and federal reforms that can address the child support debt faced by parents reentering their communities after incarceration. Recommendations for additional research in this area are also offered.