April 1, 2012

Suspending child support payments for inmates stirs Senate debate

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By Justin Snow
Justin@MarylandReporter.com

Legislation that would suspend child support payments for those serving more than an 18 month prison sentence was threatened in the Senate Friday by an amendment that supporters say would gut the bill.

The bill before the Senate is identical to House legislation passed last week, which would prevent the accrual of unmanageable debt from child support payments for inmates serving a prison sentence. Supporters argue that suspending child support payments while someone is imprisoned would benefit the child because that person is more likely to continue making payment after they are released rather than be faced with an insurmountable debt.

As it stands now, those paying child support may go to court and ask a judge to reevaluate how much they are obligated to pay each month if there is a change in their financial situation, such as a layoff or in some cases an arrest. However, supporters say few are aware that they have this option and instead fail to meet payments.

An amendment adopted by the Senate with a 24-22 vote would only extend this benefit to those who were not in arrears at the time of their arrest. Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, proposed the amendment because he said he was afraid of the message the bill could send, which was a concern echoed by other lawmakers.

Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, D-Howard County, took issue with the fact that under the bill an individual could essentially skip their entire obligation to their child if they went to prison and were released after their child had graduated from high school, which is when child support payments cease.

In explaining his support of the amendment, Senate President Mike Miller said he could imagine what the vote would be if there were 47 welfare mothers at home with kids rather than senators in the chamber. “I’ve never been in their shoes but I can imagine what they’d be thinking,” he said.

Sponsor opposed to amendment

In voicing his opposition to the amendment, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said the amended bill would affect almost no one, with the exception of those who are already aware that they may have their payment rate reevaluated by the court, and thus defeat the purpose of the legislation.

Reacting to the vote, Zirkin said the amended bill might make state child support laws worse than they already are.

“The amendment makes no sense,” Zirkin told reporters after the Senate adjourned, adding that he may try to kill his own bill and push for the House version instead.

Zirkin said he would be willing to accept an amendment defeated 21-24 Friday proposed by Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, that would require prison staff to inform each inmate during processing that they can file to have their child support payments reevaluated by a judge.

“I think a bill like this should not be jammed through,” Zirkin said. “I want this to get an overwhelming vote because people are comfortable with what they’re doing.”