By Meghan McCann
Generally, incarcerated parents come in contact with the child support program in one of two ways.
Either they are incarcerated for non-compliance with a child support order, or they are in prison for an unrelated offense and they have an open child support case.
As of Dec. 31, 2013, there were approximately 1.57 million people in federal or state prison. More than 50 percent of those inmates have one or more child under the age of 18 and an estimated one quarter have a child support case.
While these numbers capture the number of incarcerated parents in federal or state prisons, there is no clear picture of how many people are held in county jails. The Bureau of Justice estimated that there was more than 730,000 inmates in local jails in 2013. What remains unknown is how many of those inmates were incarcerated for child support noncompliance.
Several states have programs to address this population of incarcerated parents, from diversion programs to prevent parents from being incarcerated for failure to pay child support, and programs to establish orders based on actual income, to state prison outreach and data collection, and allowing for suspension or modification of child support orders while the parent is incarcerated.
NCSL’s Child Support and Incarceration page provides a detailed look at the complicated intersection of child support and incarceration, as well as the programs that states are operating to improve child support compliance and encourage ongoing, consistent child support payments.
Meghan McCann is a policy specialist with NCSL’s Children and Families program. She covers child support and family law policy. Email Meghan.