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Incarceration and child support

New York parents who are involved in child support disputes may wonder about the usefulness of incarceration as a penalty for failure to meet support obligations. While some media outlets suggest that imprisonment is an effective incentive for individuals who have the means to pay, it has been argued that the punishment often creates a cycle that allows the payer's debt to grow to unmanageable levels.

While there are no national figures regarding the incarceration rate of parents who do not pay child support, state and county data might demonstrate how much that failure contributes to prison populations. Figures from 2009 suggest that about 12.5 percent of South Carolina inmates were incarcerated because they had failed to meet their court-ordered obligations. About 3,500 people were jailed in Georgia in 2010 for the same reason.

Jail time is often the final enforcement action taken against a parent who is responsible for providing support. Before incarceration, authorities typically withhold a percentage of the individual's paycheck or seize their bank accounts. In some cases, a person's driver's or professional license might be suspended or denied renewal. It is suggested that these sanctions are exceptionally burdensome to poorer parents who may go back and forth between unemployment and prison.

In many cases, a child support obligation is based on a parent's ability to pay, but if circumstances change, the established amount may become too high. If this occurs, it is often possible to seek a modification of the support order, but this change must be pursued through the courts. It is important to know that such an adjustment of the required payment will apply only to future obligations, and past due amounts will continue to be owed.

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