Modern Debt Imprisonment Disproportionately Affects Men

face of a prisoner

While high-income countries no longer imprison persons for non-payment of private debts, some imprison persons for nonpayment of government-determined parental financial obligations. Debt imprisonment for government-determined parental financial obligations, like older forms of debt imprisonment, raises the ratio of men to women in prison.

Government-determined parental financial obligations are imposed predominately upon men. Men currently have much worse technological and legal choices for avoiding unplanned parenthood than do women. Many government-determined parental financial obligations, typically called child support, are imposed on men through default judgment not even requiring proof of service.^ Thus many men learn that the government has declared them to have the legal status of father only after arrears on government-determined parental financial obligations have accrued. Among men actually engaged in fathering a child, sex biases in child custody create sex biases in the imposition of government-determined parental financial obligations. While a mother gets custody of a child at the child’s birth, an unmarried man must take specific legal actions to gain custody of a child. Among cases of arrears for government-determined parental financial obligations, 49% concern parties who were never married to each other.^ In addition, deeply rooted, stereotype-based beliefs about gender contribute to women predominately receiving physical custody of children following divorce. Men are thus much more likely than women to be subject to government-determined parental financial obligations.

In the U.S. today, government-determined parental financial obligations are probably more dangerous to men’s personal liberty than private debt ever was. Government-determined parental financial obligations are typically set as a share of income and are effective for at least eighteen years. Specific judicial action is required to have the on-going financial obligation adjusted to reflect a change in a man’s income-earning circumstances, such as loss of job. Under U.S. federal law, arrears in these payments cannot be forgiven, nor can they be discharged in bankruptcy court. In addition, government-determined parental financial obligations in the U.S. often automatically continue to increase while a man has been imprisoned for not paying the obligations.

Government-determined parental financial obligations are relevant to men’s disproportionate imprisonment. The number of orders active against men for government-determined parental financial obligations has averaged about 7 million from 1993 to 2007. Such obligations probably keep in prison on any given day about 45,000 men. That’s equivalent to about 20% of the total number of women under incarceration.

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