Inmates could get a break on their child support payments while sitting behind bars and unable to earn an income, under legislation that passed the Louisiana House on Thursday afternoon.
The proposed law is intended to alleviate some financial barriers for inmates who are released back into their communities in the hopes that it will reduce the likelihood they'll re-offend. House Bill 680 by Gretna Rep. Joe Marino is part of the 10 bills that make up the criminal justice overhaul package which is intended to trim the prison population while saving the state money to reinvest in rehabilitating criminals.
The bill was among the more controversial of the package and opponents in the House were outright angry about it, suggesting that the proposed law put the financial interests of criminals ahead of innocent children who would suffer.
Marino has pointed out that people who are in jail earn no income, so the child and custodial spouse already are being deprived of the child support payments. But he said the sooner a person getting out of jail could get back on their feet and find financial stability, the better chances are they'd be able to support their families financially in the long run.
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Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, was the chief voice of opposition to the bill. Mack has emerged as one of the top critics in the Legislature on key bills in the criminal justice package. His opposition is significant because he is both the chair of the House criminal justice committee, which has vetted many of the bills, and because he sat on the year-long joint task force along with other legislators, law enforcement and stake holders to craft the prison overhaul recommendation that yielded the 10 bills.
"It's still a very bad bill," Mack said Thursday. "It's sending a message that children are not a priority."
The bill passed 68-30, which is a testament to the backing of conservative groups like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Family Forum.
"Does the Family Forum support this?" Baton Rouge Rep. Barry Ivey, a Republican, knowingly asked Marino on the House floor, in an attempt to offer support as he was being grilled by opposition. "Doesn't the Family Forum care about families? That's all I need to know."
Under the legislation, the child support payments wouldn't be suspended until an inmate has been in jail for at least 180 days. But if that inmate has other financial means to pay, despite not working, then the child support payments would still be required. People who go to jail for domestic abuse or another offense on the custodial parent or child would also not be eligible for the suspended payments, nor would a person who is in jail for failing to pay child support in the first place.
The bill was amended so that either the child or custodial parent can later petition to be reimbursed for the lost payments.
Marino's bill was one of a few in the package aimed at reducing financial burdens for criminals getting out of jail. Other bills in the package extend food stamps to ex-convicts who were convicted of drugs, and allow judges to modify and reduce restitution payments.
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Other bills in the package will overhaul sentencing for mostly property and drug crimes and expand parole opportunities for people who are in jail.
Marino's bill heads to the Senate along with five other House measures in the package, which already received House approval this week.