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Longitudinal Associations among Child Support Debt, Employment, and Recidivism After Prison


Abstract and Figures

Recently released prisoners in the U.S. are increasingly facing the burden of financial debt associated with correctional supervision, yet little research has pursued how—theoretically or empirically—the burden of debt might affect life after prison. To address this gap, we employ life course and strain perspectives and path analysis to examine the impact of child support debt on employment and recidivism using longitudinal data from an evaluation of a prisoner reentry program known as the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI). Results indicate that having more debt has no effect on recidivism; however, more debt was significantly associated with a decrease in later legitimate employment. Implications for community reintegration and justice processing are discussed within the framework of past and emerging work on legal financial obligations, employment, and desistance from crime after prison.
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Longitudinal Associations among Child Support Debt,
Employment, and Recidivism after Prison
Nathan W. Link and Caterina G. Roman
Department of Criminal Justice, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Recently released prisoners in the United States are increasingly facing
the burden of nancial debt associated with correctional supervision,
yet little research has pursued howtheoretically or empiricallythe
burden of debt might aect life after prison. To address this gap,
we employ life course and strain perspectives and path analysis to
examine the impact of child support debt on employment and recidi-
vism, using longitudinal data from an evaluation of a prisoner reentry
program known as the Serious and Violent Oender Reentry Initiative.
Results indicate that having more debt has no eect on recidivism;
however, more debt was signicantly associated with a decrease in
later legitimate employment. Implications for community reintegra-
tion and justice processing are discussed within the framework of past
and emerging work on legal nancial obligations, employment, and
desistance from crime after prison.
Collateral consequences;
criminal justice debt; legal
nancial obligations;
prisoner reintegration;
Each year roughly 640,000 inmates are released from state and federal prisons in the
United States (Carson and Golinelli 2013). Recidivism data from the U.S. Bureau of
Justice Statistics (BJS) show that over three-quarters of prisoners released from state
institutions will be rearrested within ve years (Durose, Cooper, and Snyder 2014).
Some of the largest and most comprehensive studies to date on what worksto lower
recidivism and increase employment have shown prisoner reentry interventions to be of
modest eectiveness (Lattimore and Visher 2013; Lattimore et al. 2012). This has led
some scholars to expand their focus from the much-studied domains of services for
employment, mental health, and housing, to include an examination of how correctional
policies might inuence recidivism and employment. This focus on policy has engen-
dered discussion about how criminal justicerelated and other nancial obligations
might impact the community reintegration process as well as a prisoners readiness for
and access to services and supported reentry opportunities.
Released prisoners often face substantial nancial burdens. Moreover, there is evidence that
the scale of debt in recent years among criminal justice populations is unprecedented (Bannon,
Nagrecha, and Diller 2010). A Maryland study found that, upon release, nearly two-thirds (62
percent) of respondents reported having legal/nancial debt related to the criminal justice
system (Visher, La Vigne, and Travis 2004). The sources of this debt includebut are not
limited tones, court fees, treatment fees, law enforcement fees, and child support orders.
CONTACT Nathan W. Link Department of Criminal Justice, Temple University, 517
Gladfelter Hall, Philadelphia, PA 19122, USA.
2017, VOL. 58, NO. 1, 140160
© 2017 Midwest Sociological Society
Child support obligations are of particular signicance for criminal justice populations
(Roman and Link 2015). According to the BJS, the majority of state and federal prisoners are
parents of children under the age of eighteen and their data suggest that 46 percent of fathers
with minor children are noncustodial parents (Glaze and Maruschak 2008). State-based
studies that link correctional data with child support enforcement data estimate that between
13 percent and 24 percent of released prisoners in the United States owe more than $400 per
month in child support (Griswold et al. 2004). Further, a 2004 study of fathers in the
correctional system in Massachusetts found that the median total for child support debt
across state and local prisoners was about $10,000 (Pearson 2004). The few other existing
studies attempting to quantify the child supportrelated debt of prisoners corroborate these
estimates (Griswold, Pearson, and Davis 2001; Ovwigho, Saunders, and Born 2005).
Contributing to the burdens rendered by child support debt is the fact that an order often
continues to accrue throughout a prisoners incarceration (Hairston 2002). Indeed, Pearson
(2004) found that virtually every prisoner with a child support order owed at least some
amount of back duesupport. Lattimore et al. (2012) found that 92 percent of participants
who entered prison with a child support order owed some amount of back due support.
Qualitative sociological research and anecdotal evidence suggest that child support
obligations and other correctional debt from nes and fees can create signicant, collateral
barriers to successful reintegration (Richards and Jones 2004). Because returning prisoners
often have to pay large portions of their income to government agencies and/or the
mothers of their dependent children (up to 65 percent), scholars have hypothesized that
ocial child support policies reduce incentives to work (McLean and Thompson 2007)
and could push ex-prisoners into the underground economy. Furthermore, the conse-
quences of failure to pay legal nancial obligations may be great. A Washington state
study found that one-fourth of returning prisoners who owed debt reported that an arrest
warrant had been issued because of failure to pay, and most were subsequently incarcer-
ated for nonpayment (Harris, Evans, and Beckett 2010).
Despite the increased role that child support systems have played in the lives of former
prisoners, no large-scale quantitative studies have examined how legal nancial obligations
associated with child support inuence key outcomes in the reintegration process. The
current work begins to address this empirical gap using longitudinal data from the
multistate Serious and Violent Oender Reentry Initiative (SVORI). Relying on panel
data, we build on the limited prior literature by examining whether child support obliga-
tions impact changes in employment and recidivism. We begin by reviewing the emerging
literature on legal nancial obligations associated with criminal justice populations, with
particular emphasis on child support, and discuss how theory informs the relationship
between this parental responsibility and employment and recidivism after prison.
The Intersection of Child Support Debt, Incarceration, and Prisoner Reintegration
In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the application of legal nancial
obligations to criminal justice defendants (Beckett and Harris 2011; Harris et al. 2010;
Levingston and Turetsky 2007). Under this umbrella are nes, restitution, child support
orders and arrears, and fees and costs. Fines are punitive and are applied during the court
process. Restitution is reimbursement that defendants pay to victims for damage caused.
Child support orders are court-set payments a parent is required to pay to the custodian of
his/her dependent child(ren) on a regular basis. These orders often go unmodied while
the person is incarcerated, which results in child support arrearsthe sum of outstanding
child support orders.
Regarding child support arrears, many former prisoners are confronted with large sums
upon reentry into the community (Cammett 2010;MincyandSorensen1998;Ovwigho,
Saunders, and Born 2005; Pearson 2004;RomanandLink2015; Sorensen 1997).This is largely
the result of three factors. First, the Bradley Amendment of President ClintonsPersonal
Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA, otherwise known
as Welfare Reform) stipulated that child support orders could not be modied retroactively
under any conditions. However, states were given wide discretion in determining whether and
how to modify child support orders prospectively. The relevant legal principle applied by the
states in this process is whether substantial changes in earning capacityhave occurred.
Unemployment qualies as one of these substantial changes, unless the unemployment is
considered voluntarysuch as quitting a job. An issue of much debate across the states is
whether incarceration should qualify as a form of voluntary unemployment. Whereas most
states have decided that incarceration is indeed a form of involuntary unemployment, many
have deemed that it is voluntary because the conduct that resulted in prison connement was
voluntary (Cammett 2010; Miller and Mincy 2012; Pearson 2004). As such, prisoners in those
states cannot have their child support orders modied prospectively to reect changes in their
earning capacity while they serve their sentences.
Second, even within the jurisdictions that do allow prospective child support modica-
tion, few inmates actually have their orders modied (Roman and Link 2015). The reason
for this lack of modication is twofold: rst, many inmates are simply not aware that their
orders can be modied, and second, even those who are aware may lack the resources and
legal knowledge required to initiate the child support modication process (Cammett
2010; Pearson 2004; Sorensen and Oliver 2002).
Third, in about half of the states, people who have outstanding child support
balancesincluding former prisonersare taxed on their child support arrears.
Because these arrears are usually large and the taxes compound over time, already
large debt burdens often increase dramatically in the few years after release. In
California, using administrative data on obligors (i.e., noncustodial parents who owe
child support), Sorensen (2004) found that taxes levied specically on these arrears
represented the largest contributor to escalating debt burdens.
After incarceration, former prisoners are responsible for repaying their debts, usually
through probation, parole, or child support enforcement oces. In addition to the
Massachusetts study cited earlier that showed median child support debt among prisoners
to be about $10,000, a Maryland study that examined the intersection of incarceration and
child support by choosing a random sample of noncustodial fathers with child support
orders found that of the subsample that was incarcerated at the time of the study, arrears
ranged from $552 to $70,305 (Ovwigho et al. 2005). For the formerly incarcerated
subsample, median arrears were $11,554, and ranged from $32 to $108,394.
There is a real need for children to receive nancial support from their previously
incarcerated fathers. However, a large proportion of the returning prisoner population
consists of low income earners with little prospect of securing well-paying employment,
so expecting large debt burdens accrued during incarceration to be paid in full upon release
has been described as unrealistic. As such, it is essential to strike an appropriate balance
between providing for dependent ospring and at the same time reducing the likelihood that
unmanageable orders will adversely aect the returning prisoner. Such potential negative
eects on the former prisoner include creating incentives to return to crime, implementing
punitive measures for nonpayment such as drivers license suspension (which could hinder
employment opportunities), or returning the obligor to incarceration in the instance of late
or nonpayment (Bannon et al. 2010;Holzer,Oner, and Sorensen 2005).
Theoretical Support
Although the relationship between child support obligations and recidivism has received
little attention in the sociological or criminological literature, there are tenable theoretical
frameworks for why having child support obligations and related debt might inuence
both recidivism and desistance from crime. Some theories lead to the suggestion that there
might be an inverse relationship between child support and recidivism, where the obliga-
tion can act as a protective factor against continued oending; other theories suggest that
it will increase the likelihood of continued oending.
Life course theories (Sampson and Laub 1995), which emphasize the factors implicated
in crime continuity and desistance beyond adolescence, oer a few relevant principles and
might suggest that legal nancial obligations can encourage successful reintegration. By
design, child support systems legally bind former prisoners to their dependent families. By
virtue of having this formal arrangement in place, family relations can be enhanced by
giving the former prisoner the opportunity to foster increased parental involvement with
and attachment to family and their attendant needs (Laub and Sampson 2003). At a
minimum, having a child support order can serve as a perennial psychological reminder of
ones parental role and responsibilities. Indeed, Seltzer, McLanahan, and Hanson (1998)
found that requiring parents to pay child support increased parental involvement between
the paying fathers and their dependent children. It is through this increased involvement
that family bonds can heal or be strengthened, which may in turn facilitate desistance. But
fewer than a handful of studies have addressed these linkages empirically. Former prison-
ers have oered historical narratives indicating that family and parenting responsibilities
acted as a turning pointstrong enough to redirect their lives in more promising
directions (Laub and Sampson 2003). Certainly, becoming a parent brings a host of new
responsibilities and changes to routine activities. In this context, former prisonersshort-
and long-term goals may shift in ways that address their immediate and long-term
parental responsibilitiesgoals that are compatible with the process of desistance from
crime, such as obtaining steady employment (Laub and Sampson 2003). Endeavoring to
nd stable, legitimate employment not only allows former prisoners to nancially support
their dependent family members, it also structures their routine activities in ways that are
likely less antisocial than before. Taken together, employment responsibilities and the day-
to-day demands of parental support can shape ones routine so profoundly that the
opportunity to reoend can be greatly minimized.
On the other hand, strain theory (Merton 1968) might suggest that being required to
pay what could amount to hefty child support payments back to the state could create or
exacerbate strain, during what is already known to be a transition marked by intense
material and emotional hardship (Western et al. 2015). Growing child support debts, as a
nancial strain (Agnew 2006), might serve as the impetus to pushor motivate people to
oend, possibly in the form of revenue-generating or acquisitive crimes, especially if those
activities are perceived as being able to counteract or mitigate the discomfort or negative
feelings associated with the particular strain (Hairston 2002). With the threat of incarcera-
tion for debt nonpayment looming, returning to crime to make ends meet may appear to
be the rational option.
Within this context, more recent developments in strain theory suggest that certain
family forces may moderate or oset the negative, perhaps criminogenic, impact of debts
associated with the criminal justice system (Agnew 2006). If, for example, family support
can protect against reoending behavior, and the driver of the oending behavior is
overwhelming nancial strain, tangible support in the form of nancial assistance will
theoretically reduce the harmful and criminogenic eects of strain. Viewed from another
angle, if a former prisoner receives family nancial support, this may also reduce the
appeal of certain revenue-generating illegal behaviors. Though instrumental family sup-
port has been mentioned as consequential in recent works (Nagrecha, Katzenstein, and
Davis 2015; Visher, La Vigne, and Travis 2004), its role among former prisoners is
underdeveloped both theoretically and empirically. But, if in the eyes of former prisoners,
this nancial strain is associated with their families, it could damage relationships further,
weakening the informal control of ties to family (Nagrecha et al. 2015).
This process might occur in one of two ways. First, families of former prisoners who
provide instrumental supportperhaps not nancially secure themselvesmay strug-
gle with supporting their recently released family member. In this instance, family
tension may arise if the family perceives that they have been given too much owner-
ship of their formerly incarcerated family members debt obligation. Second, for some
families, providing nancial support to their recently released family member may not
be an option. In these cases, relations between the family and former prisoner may
deteriorate if the former prisoner perceives that his or her family cannot be relied on
or is not supportive during the precarious transition home. Such family tension and
conict may reduce the familys informal control capacity over their formerly incar-
cerated family member. In an Australian sample of released prisoners, Martire et al.
(2011) noted that 60 percent of their sample reported that their debt adversely aected
their relationship with their partner; the same percentage reported that it hurt their
family relationships.
A Pennsylvania study found that parole violators reported having a harder time making
ends meet because of debt than those who did not violate parole. However, there were no
signicant dierences in recidivism between those who had and those who did not have this
debt (Bucklen and Zajac 2009). Martire et al. (2011) reported descriptive statistics indicating
that debt associated with criminal justice was a perennial source of stress (64 percent
reported it as stressful). Thirteen percent of the sample cited debt as the motivating factor
for their last instrumental crime (Martire et al. 2011). Petersilia, Greenwood, and Lavins
(1977) well-known study of the criminal careers of habitual felons found that heavy debt
burdens were associated with a category of felons they termed intensivecareer criminals.
In addition, qualitative evidence has linked debt with instrumental crimes among property
oenders (Sutton 1995).
With regard to employment, strain theory would suggest that former prisoners with debt
burdens might seek work in the underground economy. In fact, theorists from various dis-
ciplines suggest that rising child support obligations can lead to reductions in formal employ-
ment and labor force participation (Holzer et al. 2005; Miller and Mincy 2012;Pirog,Klotz,and
Byers 1998; Pirog and Ziol-Guest 2006). Pirog et al. (1998) demonstrated that child support
orders for economically disadvantaged fathers typically ranged from 20 percent to 35 percent of
their income. In addition, with payroll and other taxes factored in, this groups marginal tax rate
can reach over 60 percent (Primus 2006). Should these fathers have outstanding payments,
states are within federal law to garnish up to 65 percent of their take-home pay. Because of these
stringent parameters, scholars have posited that noncustodial fathers facing these realities are
incentivized not to work. Rather, forgoing work in the mainstream economy for work in the
under-the-table economywhere their incomes will not be detectedmay seem to be a
favorable alternative. By not working in the formal economy, the noncustodial parent can
earn money tax free and use more of it to support him- or herself and his or her family, while
steering clear of the threat of scal government intervention (McLean and Thompson 2007).
Legal nancial debt might aect employment via other important structural barriers
common in the prisoner reintegration process. Studies have shown that having a criminal
record can make nding employment very dicult for former prisoners (Pager 2007).
Advocacy groups have attempted to reduce this barrier by expunging stale criminal
records. Scholars have contributed to this eort by showing that suciently old convic-
tions are not useful for predicting future criminality (Blumstein and Nakamura 2009). The
relevant issue here is that, in some jurisdictions, policy prohibits criminal record expun-
gement for former prisoners who still have outstanding child support debt (Vallas and
Patel 2012). In addition, in many jurisdictions the rst penalty for nonpayment of child
support is drivers license suspension (Bannon et al. 2010; Cammett 2010; Levingston and
Turetsky 2007). This could aect employment by severely limiting the pool of jobs feasible
for an individual without a license.
However, viewed through the lens of the life course paradigm, having a child support
obligation could be positively related to employment after prison, as former prisonersgoals
may shift in response to their mounting nancial burdens. As others have noted (Visher,
Debus-Sherrill, and Yahner 2011), having nancial obligations could be a motivating factor
to nd more or better employment, as former prisoners who have debt need to earn more to
keep up with both debt payments and typical daily expenses. This goal-shifting dynamic in
response to family nancial obligations may be especially pronounced in jurisdictions where
former prisoners are routinely reincarcerated solely for their failure to repay debts or for not
repaying them on time. As it stands, current theory on child support obligations and
employment and recidivism is ambiguoussuggesting that they could be associated with
both more and less employment and reoending. Empirically, the role of these debt burdens
in the lives of former prisoners remains an unanswered question.
The Current Study
With the dramatic, national-level growth in the child support system and its strict
enforcement since the PRWORA, coupled with recent theorizing on how legal nancial
obligations aect former prisoners as the backdrop (Bannon et al. 2010; Cammett 2010;
Harris et al. 2010), the current study leverages a multistate, longitudinal sample of
returning U.S. prisoners to investigate the following research questions: (1) What is the
eect of increasing child support debt on employment and recidivism among returning
prisoners? (2) Do relationships between child support debt, employment, and recidivism
vary over a 15-month post-release period from prison? (3) Since instrumental support
theoretically can oset the burdens associated with large debt obligations, do higher levels
of family instrumental support reduce recidivism?
Data and Methods
Data used in these analyses, made available through the Interuniversity Consortium of Political
and Social Research (ICPSR), are from 1,011 adult male prisoners with children under the age of
18 that were part of the evaluation of the Serious and Violent Oender Reentry Initiative
([SVORI] Lattimore and Visher 2013). Subjects involved in the study had extensive criminal
histories, substance abuse problems, low involvement in the legitimate labor market, and
generally high levels of needs across a range of domains (Lattimore et al. 2012). Twenty-ve
percent of the subjects were in prison most recently for violent oenses, 17 percent for property
oenses, 34 percent for drug oenses, and 24 percent for other oenses.
The SVORI impact evaluation study focused on 16 programs from the following 12
states: Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma,
Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington. The SVORI programs in Iowa and
Ohio randomly assigned participants to treatment and control groups. The other 10 states
did not assign to treatment randomly, but along dimensions such as age, criminal history,
and risk level (Lattimore and Steey 2009). The reentry programs focused on improving
employment, health, education, housing, and criminal justice outcomes for returning
prisoners. Between 2004 and 2007, participants in the SVORI treatment group received
services designed to address these areas of need. Services began in prison and continued
through release into the community. The data set is appropriate for the present study
because it represents a rare, multistate opportunity to examine associations between child
support obligations, employment, and recidivism over time.
Respondents were interviewed at four time points: approximately 30 days prior to their
release from correctional institutions, and 3, 9, and 15 months post release. At 3 months,
60 percent (603) were successfully reinterviewed; 61 percent (616) were interviewed at 9
months; and 66 percent (672) at 15 months.
Subjects who were incarcerated at follow-up
were interviewed in jail or prison.
Endogenous Variables
Employment was measured as a binary (yes/no) variable at each wave indicating if the
respondent supported himself via a legitimate job since the last interview. Respondents were
coded as 1if they reported legitimate employment in response to the question: How did you
support yourself since the last interview?This operationalization is in line with much of the
research on employment among criminal justice populations (Skardhamar and Savolainen
2014). Baseline employment (legitimate employment six months prior to the instant incarcera-
tion) was used as a control in the longitudinal models.
Recidivism was operationalized as rearrest, which was a (yes/no) binary outcome
measured at 3, 9, and 15 months using ocial arrest data from the National Crime
Information Center (NCIC). These administrative data were collected by the SVORI
researchers and they contain arrests recorded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The strength of this measure is that, unlike self-reported crime, which suers from a
degree of attrition, this outcome has little missing data. Of the 1,011 subjects in our
sample, rearrest data are available for 951 respondents, or 96 percent. For those respon-
dents who had missing data on rearrest, ocial time-varying data on reincarceration were
inserted into the rearrest variable and used as a proxy measure. Thus, our rearrest
outcome variable contained no missing cases.
The subjects in the study were released
between 2004 and 2006, and the data on these rearrests were gathered in 2008 and 2009.
Exogenous Variables
The amount of child support debt owed by respondents was measured as an ordinal scale
at each wave. The baseline question asked about the six months prior to the current
incarceration; the follow-up items asked what was owed at the time of each interview. The
scale ranged from 0to less than $1,000(coded 1), $1,000 to $1,999(coded 2),
$2,000 to $2,999(coded 3), $3,000 to $3,999(coded 4), $4,000 to $4,999(coded 5),
and to more than $5,000(coded 6).
Family instrumental (or tangible) support was included as a theoretically important
covariate (Visher et al. 2011) measured at each follow-up wave as the sum of ve items
probing the degree to which family members provided support related to: housing,
transportation, employment, substance abuse treatment, and nances. The item asked
respondents to reect on the time since incarceration (for Wave 2) or since the last
interview(for Waves 3 and 4). Responses ranged from strongly disagree(0) to dis-
agree(1) to agree(2) to strongly agree(3). Thus, the SVORI-created scale ranged
from 0 to 15 with higher values indicating greater support (Lattimore and Steey 2009).
Cronbachs alpha was high (.89) at each wave.
The type of oense for which the respondent was currently serving a sentence (i.e., the
index incarceration) was measured with dichotomous variables property oenseand
violent oense,with drug/other oenseas the reference category. Age at rst arrest, a
measure often found in reentry evaluation studies (Lattimore and Visher 2013), was also
included as a covariate to control for criminal justice risk in the rearrest model.
Supervision status (on supervision) measured if the respondent was on probation or
parole (yes/no) at each subsequent interview and was used in the rearrest model. The
number of days the respondent spent in prison prior to release was included as a
continuous variable. To control for variation that might be due to SVORI participation,
we created a dichotomous indicator of whether the respondent was part of the treatment
condition (SVORI participation). Job serviceswas measured at each wave with the item:
Have you received any educational or employment services in prison/since release/in the
last six months?Similar to studies controlling for opportunity by including time on the
streetin the analysis, reincarcerated status was controlled with dummy indicators to
identify respondents who, according to ocial records, were incarcerated at each follow-
up interview point and were therefore unable to be employed or rearrested.
All reincar-
cerated subjects were interviewed.
Because past research has shown that physical health is often a signicant predictor for
obtaining and retaining a job (Visher et al. 2011), we included a measure of physical
health limitations as a predictor in the paths to employment outcomes. Physical health
problemsreects the following items: Does your health now limit you in moderate
activitiessuch as moving a table or playing basketballa lot (2), a little (1), or not at all
(0)?and Does your health now limit you a lot (2), a little (1), or not at all (0) when
climbing several ights of stairs?Thus, the variable ranged from 0 to 4 with higher scores
indicating worse health. Cronbachs alpha is .81.
Child support laws and policies vary by state, with some states having more stringent
laws than others. To address this interstate variation, we created a scale (State CS law)
that measures how strict the respondentsstateisvis-à-vispoliciesregardingorder
modications in the event of an incarceration, where 0 = incarceration is sucient to
justify modication, 1 = incarceration is considered among other factors for modica-
tion, and 2 = incarceration is insucient to justify modication. As such, higher values
correspond to increasing strictness.
The following demographics were measured at baseline and considered time
invariant. Race was measured using the dummy variable African Americanwith
the question: Which of the following best describes you? Please check all that apply,
this variable represents anyone who chose African Americanonly. An education
indicator measured whether the respondent completed high school or received a GED
(high school/GED). Since nancial status could aect how burdensome a debt obliga-
tion might be, a continuous hourly wage measure was included as an indicator of
income. We originally modeled this variable as time-varying, but since the results
were no dierent with the more complete baseline data, we opted to make hourly
wage time-invariant. In addition, baseline data might better capture ability to pay in
that it represents wages before leaving prison with a felony conviction. Married/
partner was measured as a dichotomous variablewherethevalueof1indicates
that the person was married or had a steady partner. This variable was measured as
time-varying to account for respondents who might change their marital status after
release from prison. Age was measured as chronological age at release from the
instant incarceration, but was ultimately removed from the core models because of
collinearity issues with our key family support variable, though it was retained as a
predictor in the Heckman selection equation.
Because we are using longitudinal data and the key outcomes of interest are dichot-
omous (employment and rearrest), generalized structural equation modeling (GSEM)
in Stata 13 was used to estimate a cross-lagged path model. The panel nature of these
data is leveraged for two related reasons. First, items for child support debt, employ-
ment, rearrest, family support, and other key variables are time-variant, thus we can
more accurately capture how levels of our key variables inuence the outcomes vari-
ables over time in the reentry process. Second, panel data analysis allows for previous
levels of key variables to be incorporated in the analyses. In this way, relationships
examined no longer reect the eect of Xon Y, but rather Xon later changes in Y.
Whileitisimpossibletoprecludethefactthatsomethird,unidentied, time-varying
variable is causing these changes in Y, this method marks a strong improvement over
cross-sectional methods that suer potential endogeneity and time-ordering issues
(Wooldridge 2010).
In the current analyses, employment and recidivism outcomes are treated as endogen-
ousaecting each other over time. The core model indicating the theoretical paths for
the two key outcomes (without the covariates) and the main predictor (amount of child
support debt) is shown in Figure 1. Following Wilsons(1997) deindustrialization model
whereby unemployment leads to changes in routine activities and increased criminal
behavior, we assess the impact that employment has on recidivism (job rearrest).
Within each wave, the cross-sectional impact of being employed is assessed on the like-
lihood of rearrest (paths a1, a2, and a3) for each of the waves post-baseline.
Longitudinally, the impact of being employed at one time point is assessed on changes
in rearrest at later points (paths b1, b2, and b3). Conversely, the impact of being rearrested
on the likelihood of later changes in employment status is analyzed (paths c1, c2, and c3).
These paths are motivated by theoretical and empirical research emphasizing the powerful
and stigmatizing forces behind ocial arrest, and its social consequences, such as the
impact on ones likelihood of securing legitimate employment (Uggen, Manza, and
Thompson 2006). Our preliminary analyses (not shown here) revealed that child support
debt having lagged impacts on rearrest and employment t the data much better than
models with child support debt aecting outcomes in the same wave. The Bayesian
information criterion (BIC) dierence between the lagged versus same-wave models was
15 (with the lagged model having a lower BIC), indicating that the lagged modeling
approach t the data better (Raftery 1995). As such, paths f1 through f3 and paths g1
through g3 in Figure 1 illustrate the conceptual associations between child support and
employment and rearrest, respectively. The models also include stability coecientsthe
paths for the association between each outcome and itself across waves (paths d1 through
Employment Employment Employment
Baseline Time 2 Time 3 Time 4
a1 a2 a3
b2 b3
c1 c2
f1 f2 f3
g1 g2 g3
d1 d2 d3
e1 e2
Figure 1. Child support, employment, and recidivism after prison. Baseline interviews conducted
approximately 30 days prior to institutional release. Time 2, Time 3, and Time 4 interviews conducted
at 3, 9, and 15 months, respectively.
d3 and e1 and e2). It is important to note that with regard to employment and reincar-
ceration, the SVORI protocol carefully asks respondents who were reincarcerated (at each
interview): After you were released but before you were reincarcerated, how did you
support yourself?This phrasing helps establish whether a respondent held any job in that
postinstant incarceration period but before he was reincarcerated for a violation or a new
In addition to the variables found in the conceptual model in Figure 1 (i.e., employ-
ment, rearrest, and child support debt), the model includes a set of covariates theoretically
and empirically grounded in the desistance and reentry literature (see Table 1). The
independent variables instrumental family support, marital status, supervision status, job
services, physical health problems, and reincarcerated status are time-varying; type of
oense, hourly wage, SVORI-group assignment, the control for state variation, and all
demographics are time-invariant.
Missing data due to subject attrition is addressed in two complementary ways. First, the
Heckman selection model was used to address sample selection bias due to attrition at
follow-up waves (3, 9, and 15 months). Distinct from the popular two-step Heckman
correction that models the selection equation using probit regression, employs the pre-
dicted values from this model to calculate the inverse mills ratio (IMR) for each case, and
includes the IMR as a control in an ordinary least squares (OLS) model, the Heckman
selection model in GSEM uses latent variables and probit regression only (Statacorp 2013).
In this way, it is able to model dichotomous outcomes, unlike the two-step Heckman
correction (Bushway, Johnson, and Slocum 2007). Age at release was used as an exclusion
restriction predicting selection, as it was shown not to be signicantly related to our
endogenous variables of interest. Second, GSEM in Stata 13 uses equation-wise deletion
rather than listwise deletion, which does not automatically drop cases that have some
missing data. Instead, this approach uses all of the data available to it when estimating
parameters (StataCorp 2013). For example, a respondent who was interviewed at baseline
and nine months only would be included in the analyses relevant for those time points,
and dropped from the equations where he had missing values. In this way, GSEM was able
to use some data from all but one respondent from the sample (n= 1,010).
Results from the cross-lagged path model indicated some support for the hypothesis
that having a higher child support order reduces the likelihood that a respondent will
have or obtain legitimate employment. As shown in Table 2, an increase in the amount
of child support debt reported at Wave 3 was associated with a 6 percent decrease in
the odds of reporting legitimate employment by Wave 4 (p<.05).Regardingmarital/
partner status, being married at baseline and at Wave 4 was associated with increases
in the likelihood of reporting being employed in the same wave (OR = 1.39 and 1.42, p
Though the pathway from employment to recidivism is more studied, results here
showed that rearrest signicantly predicted changes in later employment. The eect of
being arrested between release and the 3-month interview (Wave 2) was associated with a
39 percent reduction in the likelihood of reporting employment between the 3- and 9-
month (Wave 3) interviews (p< .01). This eect was not signicant at the following wave
(15 months), although the direction of the association was the same.
Other signicant ndings were that having a high school education or GED, and the
control for variation in child support laws across states predicted employment at Wave 2
(both positive; p< .05). Being African American (p< .05) and having greater physical
Table 1. Summary statistics for men (n= 1,011) in the SVORI sample.
Variables NMor % SD Range
Dependent Variables
Rearrest (1 = yes, 0 = no)
T2Rearrest 1,011 16% 01
T3Rearrest 1,011 32% 01
T4Rearrest 1,011 32% 01
Employment (1 = yes, 0 = no)
T2Employment 602 65% 01
T3Employment 588 70% 01
T4Employment 560 67% 01
Time-varying Covariates
Child Support (CS) Debt Amount
Baseline CS debt 1,011 1.21 2.25 06
T2Debt 603 1.48 2.42 06
T3Debt 616 1.47 2.38 06
T4Debt 672 1.57 2.46 06
Instrumental Family Support
T2FamilySupport 591 11.60 2.86 015
T3FamilySupport 572 11.17 3.00 015
T4FamilySupport 550 11.20 2.96 015
Marital Status/Steady Partner (1 = yes, 0 = no)
BaselineMarried 1,008 48% 01
T2Married 602 63% 01
T3Married 616 69% 01
T4Married 672 61% 01
Job Services (1 = yes, 0 = no)
T2JobServices 603 40% 01
T3JobServices 616 34% 01
T4JobServices 672 21% 01
Physical Health Problems (04)
T2PhysicalHealth 601 0.52 1.10 04
T3PhysicalHealth 616 0.58 1.12 04
T4PhysicalHealth 672 0.58 1.11 04
On Supervision (1 = yes, 0 = no)
T2Supervised 602 83% 01
T3Supervised 670 52% 01
T4Supervised 613 69% 01
Reincarcerated (1 = yes, 0 = no)
T2Reincarcerated 1,011 4% 01
T3Reincarcerated 1,011 16% 01
T4Reincarcerated 1,011 23% 01
Time Invariant Covariates
Age at release 1,011 29.68 6.44 1873
African American 1,011 59% 01
White/other 1,011 41% 01
HS education (1 = yes, 0 = no) 1,011 59% 01
SVORI participation (1 = yes, 0 = no) 1,011 50% 01
Employed at baseline (1 = yes, 0 = no) 1,009 63% 01
Index oense-property 1,011 19% 01
Index oense-violent 1,011 37% 01
Index oense-drug/other 1,011 44% 01
Age at rst Arrest 1,003 16.01 4.84 648
State CS law 1,011 1.29 .82 02
Hourly Wage 984 7.33 8.24 087.5
health problems (p< .001) decreased the likelihood of reporting legal employment.
Coecients for physical health problems and race more or less showed similar eects
through Waves 3 and 4. At Wave 4, SVORI participation was signicantly associated with
reporting legal employment (OR = 1.35, p< .05). This last result mirrors ndings from the
2004 evaluation of the SVORI that found participation in SVORI increased receipt of
employment-related services and was linked to better employment outcomes (Lattimore
et al. 2012). Instrumental family support did not have a statistically signicant relationship
with the likelihood of reporting legal employment.
Table 2. Cross-lagged impacts of child support and covariates on employment outcomes (odds ratios
displayed), n= 1,010.
Baseline Wave 2 (3 mos.) Wave 3 (9 mos.) Wave 4 (15 mos.)
Amount child support debt 1.011 .025 1.007 .026 .940* .027
Prior rearrest .606** .117 .880 .151
Prior employment 1.461** .171 2.081*** .295 2.861*** .440
HS education/GED at baseline 1.060 .147 1.335* .153 1.264 .181 1.214 .179
Received job services .963 .112 1.078 .157 1.124 .187
African American .596*** .086 .752* .090 .702* .106 .868 .132
SVORI participant 1.196 .137 1.039 .145 1.345* .193
Physical health problems 1.027 .056 .797*** .039 .809*** .045 .871* .055
Married/partner 1.394* .187 1.088 .127 1.055 .164 1.422* .218
Family instrumental support .981 .020 1.017 .024 .958.024
Property oense 1.228 .252 .834 .139 .905 .187 1.199 .258
Drug/other oense .808 .117 1.088 .133 1.064 .159 1.041 .159
State CS law 1.152* .082 1.181 .101 .954 .086
Reincarcerated 1.110 .251 1.288 .235 1.100 .218
Model log-likelihood df AIC BIC
3,963.17 116 8,158 8,728
Note.p< .10; *p< .05; **p< .01; ***p<.001, two-tailed tests.
Table 3. Cross-lagged impacts of child support and covariates on rearrest outcomes (odds ratios
displayed), n= 1,010.
Wave 2 (3 mos.) Wave 3 (9 mos.) Wave 4 (15 mos.)
Rearrest OR SE OR SE OR SE
Amount child support debt .888.060 .943 .055 .960 .053
Current employment .378** .123 .655 .226 .390** .135
Prior employment .880 .641 1.203 .367 1.385 .473
HS education/GED .396** .111 .552* .155 1.036 .310
Age at rst arrest 1.007 .031 .997 .030 1.002 .029
African American 1.493 .459 1.356 .408 1.509 .460
SVORI participant 1.147 .312 .999 .274 1.297 .370
On supervision 1.035 .351 .539* .152 1.408 .416
Married/partner .737 .205 .598.183 1.047 .326
Family instrumental support .973 .046 .940 .040 .993 .047
Property oense .751 .315 1.542 .614 1.055 .412
Drug/other oense .776 .230 1.050 .317 .605 .194
State CS law .689* .111 .575** .097 .742 .134
Hourly wage .994 .024 1.019 .029 1.005 .017
Prior rearrest 1.761 .644 4.196*** 1.361
Reincarcerated 23.316*** 10.069 8.989*** 2.750 12.592*** 4.414
Model log-likelihood df AIC BIC
3,963.17 116 8,158 8,728
Note.p< .10; *p< .05; **p< .01; ***p<.001, two-tailed tests.
Turning to the arrest outcomes presented in Table 3,ndings at the 3-month interview
showed that increasing child support was associated with a reduction in rearrest, though
the eect slightly missed conventional signicance levels (p= .06, two-tailed). The
coecients for the following two time periods, though in the same direction, were not
Cross-sectional results revealed that reporting having legitimate employment signi-
cantly reduced the odds of rearrest by 62 percent and 61 percent at the 3- and 15-month
interviews, respectively. The path was not signicant (p= .15) for employment at 9
months on arrest at 9 months. Longitudinal analyses showed that employment did not
have lagged eects on rearrest.
Despite recent interest in the potential benets of instrumental family support, this variable
showed no signicant impacts at any wave on rearrest. Although not part of our key research
questions, there were a few covariates that signicantly predicted rearrest. At Wave 2, these
were education (negative; p< .01) and our control for variation in child support laws across
states (negative; p< .05). At Wave 3, signicant covariates were being under criminal justice
supervision (negative; p< .05), education (negative; p< .05), and the control for variation in
child support laws across states (negative; p< .001). By Wave 4, results showed thatother
than employment statusonly prior rearrest and the control for reincarceration were sig-
nicant (positive; p< .001).
In the context of unprecedented legal nancial obligations that many individuals face once
released from prison (Bannon et al. 2010; Beckett and Harris 2011), and the life course
and strain perspectives suggesting that they matter, the analyses presented here sought to
assess whether child support debt in particular aects employment and recidivism among
former prisoners. Given the nding that higher child support debt signicantly reduced
employment by the 15-month interview, it could be that as the reality of life sets in after
release from prison, the strain of a high child support burden begins to drive former
prisoners away from legitimate, on-the-books employment, and puts them on a pathway
to the underground economy. Much theorizing has assumed that ocial state child
support enforcement policies have created a perverse incentive structure that serves to
decrease the likelihood that those who owe child support will enter the legitimate labor
force. This position is based on the logical reasoning that, if the government can garnish a
majority of an obligors income (up to 65 percent)which presumably the obligor does
not wanthe or she will give up searching for employment. Alternatively, the obligor may
pursue work in the o-the-books economy where payments are made under the table.If
the government cannot detect any earnings, it cannot garnish any, and more of the former
prisoners earnings can be funneled to his or her family. Interestingly, this eect of debt on
legitimate employment emerged after one year out in the community, which could mean
thatamong former prisonersthere is something about being in the community longer
that matters vis-à-vis the theory that high child support causes joblessness. Though it
remains an unanswered question, these results hint at several possible dynamics occurring
among debtors released from prison. First, the time-dependent association between the
family obligation and employment could mean that it takes several months for former
prisoners to internalize the large scale of their debts and the apparent futility of their
repayment eorts. Intentions to keep up with payments may fade if the debt burdens
appear insurmountable. Further, the debt burden may have grown rapidly since release,
particularly for those who had their debts modied (i.e., debt did not accrue) while
incarcerated. In another scenario, upon release from prison, it likely takes state govern-
ments several months to begin the legal process of garnishing wages to repay outstanding
child support arrears or reimburse welfare benets. If this is the case, the disincentive for
the former prisoner to nd work in the mainstream economywhere wages are visible
and therefore can be garnishedwould not arise for the several months before wage
garnishing begins.
In terms of recidivism, the theoretical literature supports both the possibility that debt
could be protective and, conversely, that it could encourage criminal activity. We found
no consistent support across the reentry period for either hypothesis. Nor did we nd that
those respondents with lower baseline hourly wages were more susceptible to rearrest. An
important policy implication stemming from this nding is that despite recent valid
concern over the increasing size of child support arrears, it does not appear that judicial
actors should be overly concerned by the idea that child supportrelated nancial obliga-
tions in particular might inspire illegal conduct that results in rearrest. There may well be
other adverse consequences of unending debt burdens for former prisoners that should
concern policymakers, but heightened recidivism may not be one.
In support of Wilsons(1997) unemployment thesis, employment and rearrest from
the same waves were strongly negatively associated. However, since these cross-sec-
tional paths are subject to questions of causal directionality (employment aects
rearrest but rearrest also aects employment), we examined the lagged eects of both
on each other while controlling for prior employment and rearrest. Testing the long-
itudinal version of the Wilson (1997) thesis that lack of employment increases criminal
behavior, we found no signicant relationship between employment at an earlier time
period and changes in later arrests. However, we did nd support for the reverse:
arrests can decrease the likelihood of being employed later in time (while controlling
for reincarceration). An arrest by the 3-month interview was signicantly and strongly
associated with a drop in reported employment at the 9-month interview. We couched
this nding using a stigma and labeling framework (Uggen et al. 2006); former inmates
who recidivate are marked and, consequently, are not attractive targets for hire.
Another possibility is that we may have uncovered a process whereby arrests caused
employers to terminate those arrested employees. However, if the latter is the case, one
might expect that termination to occur immediately, but the eect we found was lagged
over a period of months.
Granted the observation period was only 16 months, turning-point variables such as
employment and marriage (both were time-varying measures in our models) did not nd
consistent, strong support. In the data, although employment and rearrest were strongly
correlated cross-sectionally, employment did not predict a change in later criminal
activity, suggesting thatin generalhaving a job or getting a new job did not redirect
the life course in a favorable direction for the men in this sample. The eect of having a
steady partner or being married on arrest was nonsignicant. The lack of ndings for
marriage/partner and employment could be reective of the SVORI sample being one that
consists mainly of violent and serious oenders. Sampson and Laubs work has shown that
violent oenders tend to desist later than property oenders (Sampson and Laub 1995). In
their study, the average age of desistance for violent oenders was 31; for property
oenders it was 26. The average age at release for the SVORI sample is 29. The lack of
signicance for marriage could also be a measurement issue, as others have recently noted
(Bersani and Dipietro 2016), because the measures in this study did not capture the
quality of the job or marriage. As Laub and Sampson (2003) have shown, desistance is
more likely when attachment to a job or marriage is strong. In addition, the SVORI data
span less than two yearsa small time period in the life course.
With respect to instrumental family support, we found no evidence that it impacted
recidivism or employment, except for a marginally signicant eect on employment in
one wave only. Unlike emotional family support, instrumental support in this context may
not help to bring about changes in behavior among former prisoners. However, our
ndings could also suggest that instrumental support can be hard to capture in survey
items, as this type of support surely manifests in varying ways.
The ndings presented here are qualied by a few other limitations. First, our recidi-
vism dependent variable (i.e., ocial rearrest data) is not a perfect measure of recidivism,
as some reoending certainly was not captured in this variable. However, its strength,
relative to the self-report measures of recidivism in these data, is the completeness of the
data. Further, ocial arrest dependent variables tend to be preferred in reentry research
(Lattimore and Visher 2013).
Second, as in most panel studies and all reentry studies, missing data due to subject
attrition at follow-up periods is an issue. We attempted to address this in two comple-
mentary ways. First, unlike longitudinal repeated measures analysis that requires complete
data at every time point, generalized structural equation modeling can use cases that have
some missing data at some waves. This method retains more information than casewise
deletion methods that drop entire cases if they have missing data at one or more waves.
Second, the Heckman weighting adjusts for sample nonrepresentativeness after the base-
line interview. We compared results from Heckman vs. non-Heckman models and found
them to be very similar, boosting condence in the patterns uncovered. Further, this
nding echoes other scholarswork showing that various methods for addressing missing
data with the SVORI data set produce similar results (Taylor and Auerhahn 2013). While
these methods represent new and innovative approaches to address missing information
in panel data, we acknowledge that these methods do not provide a complete solution to
the perennial problem of the potential bias introduced by missing data in panel studies.
Third, because our measure of child support debt was the self-reported amount of a
debt obligation at each wave, it is subject to bias due to underreporting or simply due to
respondents not knowing the actual amount that they owe. The categorical grouping of
dollar amounts for the response values used in the SVORI interview protocol for the child
support debt item may minimize these potential reliability issues. With regard to possible
underreporting of child support debt, we have condence in the frequencies reported
because data from other sources show similar percentages of inmates who have child
support obligations and related debt (Griswold et al. 2004; Visher et al. 2004).
Fourth, we were not able to completely account for interstate dierences in our
analyses. Importantly, the child support law variable created to address state context
was signicantly associated with employment at one wave and rearrest at two, indicating
real dierences in the child support, employment, and rearrest landscape across states that
remain to be uncovered.
Finally, the SVORI datawhich focus on serious oendersare not likely representa-
tive of the entire U.S. adult male prison population, and therefore the ndings may not be
generalizable across all male state prisoners. However, because there are virtually no large
multistate data sets available to shed light on potential problems related to criminal justice
nancial obligations and formerly incarcerated populations, the SVORI data set remains
an important avenue to explore how child support obligations and related debt aect
aspects of prisoner reentry.
Conclusions and Policy Implications
Prisoner reintegration research has traditionally focused on issues surrounding salient
domains of need such as housing, substance abuse, mental health, and employment, and
how these might hinder successful reintegration. As important as these investigations are,
their pursuit has relegated inquiry into invisible barriers”—such as an exploration into
collateral issues such as nes, fees, child support, and other legal obligationsto the
criminological backburner. The current work, along with the recent work of others, has
attempted to bring these issues out of the shadows. Additional research to uncover the
theoretical mechanisms that link debt to negative outcomesand any possible mediators
in reentry is needed. Specically, our ndings that link high child support debt with
lower odds of legitimate employment highlight the need for research that assesses the
drivers of both legitimate and illegitimate work in the reentry period and how they might
vary over time.
Policy implications surrounding child support orders are debatable in the context of
fathers returning from incarcerationshould they be cracked down onfor the sake of
their familysnancial well-being, or should they be given a degree of leeway to mitigate
the stressful reentry experience? On one hand, enforcement mechanisms should be (and
are) in place to increase the likelihood that dependent children and their caretakers receive
critical nancial support. This seems especially important in the instances where payments
go directly to the family rather than to the state as welfare reimbursement. On the other
hand, many fathers returning from incarceration are indigent, have little prospect of
obtaining well-paying employment, and already have sizable debts in place stemming
from nes, fees, and costs associated with the justice process. In this scenario, adding large
child support debt burdens to these cases and expecting payment is unrealistic, and likely
achieves little in terms of assisting dependent family members with their material needs.
In fact, strict enforcement on indigent fathers could undermine the very purpose of the
child support system by hurting the family if fathersinability to make steady payments
results in their reincarceration. Of course, the former prisoners trying to reintegrate do
not benet in this situation either. As an alternative angle, recent innovations in programs
and policies designed to increase fathersability to make payments may hold promise in
the realm of prisoner reintegration. These include oering work-oriented programs and
tax credits for child support payment to noncustodial parents, and such approaches have
shown to increase fathersemployment and child support compliance (Sorensen and
Lippold 2013). Further, recent work suggests that improving the quality of parents
coparental relationships increases nancial support provided by nonresident fathers
(Goldberg 2015). This family-strengthening intervention could oer several benets to
former prisoners and their families.
Our ndings imply that cross-systems approaches or comprehensive reentry programs that
address debt in tandem with other aspects of reentry may be needed. On a larger scale, a
continued focus on child support and related debt remains important for criminal justice and
child welfare policy simply given the stark ndings by other researchers that show a quarter of all
child support arrears owed to custodial parents are owed by individuals who were incarcerated
or previously incarcerated (Ovwigho et al. 2005). Given the extent of these consequential,
unpaid obligations among prisoners and former prisoners in the United States, policymakers
might begin to think dierently about how to prioritize supports for returning prisoners and
their families.
1. Eighty-one percent completed at least one follow-up. T-tests compared those who completed all
interviews to those who did not and found no statistically signicant dierences between the
two groups (p> .05) along many dimensions, including age, race, education, marital status, type
of index oense, family instrumental support, employment status, SVORI treatment assign-
ment, and the presence of a child support obligation. This pattern echoes SVORI researchers
ndings that at the follow-up waves, neither treatment nor comparison groups were statistically
dierent on key characteristics from baseline (Lattimore et al. 2012).
2. We recognize the pros and cons of this strategy. While respondents who were reincarcerated
were almost certainly rearrested, there could exist respondents who were rearrested but not
reincarcerated. As such, we ran all analyses two ways: lling in reincarcerated as a proxy and
with those respondents dropped. The model results were very similar; hence, we report on
models using reincarceration to signify rearrest in cases missing rearrest information.
3. Due to concerns that this variable might be problematic for the rearrest outcome, models were
also run with this variable omitted. Results were not substantively dierent.
4. We did not control for each state in the model. Adding dummy controls for each state created
an overparameterizedmodel with 77 new paths11 states × 7 outcomes (one state would be
the reference category) that would not converge (Tanaka 1987). As such, we were forced to
exclude state controls from the nal model but have included this variable to capture a degree
of variation across states.
We are grateful to the editorial oce at The Sociological Quarterly and four anonymous reviewers
for their careful assessments of our article. In addition, we would like to thank Ralph B. Taylor for
his guidance and feedback on the analytical models. An earlier version of this article was presented
at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology.
This work was supported by Award No. 2012-IJ-CX-0012, awarded by the National Institute of
Justice, Oce of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, ndings, conclusions,
and recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reect the
views of the Department of Justice.
Notes on Contributors
Nathan W. Link is a doctoral candidate at Temple University. His areas of research are corrections,
criminal justice policy, and criminological theory, and his recent work focuses on debt associated
with criminal justice processing. His work is published in Justice Quarterly, Crime and Delinquency,
Criminal Justice and Behavior, Criminal Justice Policy Review, and Administration and Policy in
Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research. He can be reached at
Caterina G. Roman is an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple
University. Her interests include the social networks of at-risk and gang youth; prisoner reentry;
gang violence; and the role of community organizations and institutions and other aspects of social
capital in crime prevention and neighborhood well-being. She can be reached at croman@temple.
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... Fathers who fall behind on child support often face legal, economic, and social sanctions, including suspension of drivers' licenses, pub-lic shaming, and incarceration. A growing body of research suggests that child support debt leads to lower employment and compliance with child support orders, less involvement with children, and worse mental health among nonresident fathers (McLeod and Gottlieb 2018;Miller and Mincy 2012;Link and Roman 2017;Turner and Waller 2016;Cancian, Heinrich, and Chung 2013;Um 2019). Thus, it is likely that child support arrears may be a particularly harmful form of debt for children. ...
... As with other debts, arrears may reduce available household resources-though in different ways for custodial mothers and nonresident fathers. Evidence suggests that arrears reduce fathers' motivation to secure employment because up to 65 percent of their earnings can be withheld, further constraining resources within their households (Link and Roman 2017;Miller and Mincy 2012). If arrears are owed to the state, they are likely to affect only fathers. ...
... Fathers who accrue arrears may lose their drivers' li-1 2 7 censes, be publicly shamed through "deadbeat dads" billboards and websites, have wages garnished at high rates, or be incarcerated for nonpayment (Office of the Inspector General 2000; Roberts and Vinson 2004;Turetsky 2019;McLeod and Gottlieb 2018). Child support arrears are associated with lower employment, greater risk of incarceration, worse mental health, and lower child support payments among nonresident fathers (Miller and Mincy 2012;McLeod and Gottlieb 2018;Link and Roman 2017;Cancian, Heinrich, and Chung 2013;Um 2019). In some cases, men may be forced to rely on family members and partners to make "purge payments" on this debt to avoid immediate incarceration (Katzenstein and Waller 2015), increasing the resource strain and decreasing the subjective financial well-being that families face. ...
Wealth inequality in the United States has increased tremendously over the last several decades and has potentially serious repercussions for disparities in child well-being. Household debt, a key component of wealth, may also play a role in such disparities. In this study, we explore the associations of parents’ unsecured debt with children’s socioemotional well-being. Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, we compare the associations of mothers’ unsecured household debt, fathers’ unsecured household debt, and fathers’ child support arrears with socioemotional outcomes among nine- and fifteen-year old children who have a nonresident father. We find robust evidence that nonresident fathers’ child support arrears, but not other types of parental household debt, are associated with worse outcomes and that these associations become stronger as children age.
... The dramatic increase in legal-financial obligations that former prisoners face when they reenter society has also created new debtor's prisons; although the issue of child support arrears and prisoner reentry has received little attention, there is increased acknowledgement that this debt is likely to undermine reentry efforts (Link and Roman 2017;Middlemass 2017). When former prisoners are unable to pay their legal and financial obligations, including child support payments, they can end up back in prison for nonpayment. ...
... The limited research on this is mixed. A quantitative study conducted by Link and Roman (2017) found no evidence that child support debt in particular facilitated criminal activity from a sample of individuals who were on parole; however, it did steer people away from on-the-books employment. In contrast, a qualitative study of individuals on probation found that a small minority of individuals turned to selling drugs to pay for their monetary sanctions (Ruhland, 2019b). ...
Over the last five decades, US imprisonment growth has significantly strained state resources and extensively impacted communities. Due to increased costs and faced with the potential of opening a new correctional facility, Oregon passed its version of Justice Reinvestment (JRI) in 2013. It specifically targeted nonviolent crimes to reduce prison use, reduce recidivism, maintain public safety, and increase offender accountability. While Oregon and other states look to reduce prison use, including shortening sentences, there is concern that recidivism may rise. The current study assesses the impact of LOS on rearrest and reincarceration for nonviolent offenders in Oregon utilizing a quasi-experimental approach employing marginal means weighting through stratification. The results indicate that LOS has no meaningful impact on the recidivism rate in almost all cases and that sentences longer than 24 months are not likely warranted for nonviolent offenders. The results suggest that policymakers may consider shorter sentences without sacrificing public safety.
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The burden of mental health problems in detained persons is high. At the same time, mental health problems are discussed as possible predictors of criminal recidivism. During detention, mental health tends to improve. The aims of the study were twofold: First, to identify group-based trajectories of mental health problems over the course of detention; second, to test the association between trajectories and criminal recidivism. A prospective cohort of 1,904 adult males detained in Dutch pre-trial detention facilities was assessed at three time points after imprisonment (week 3, month 3, and month 9). Mental health problems were measured using the Brief Symptom Inventory. Recidivism was defined as reconviction and re-incarceration up to 18 months post-release. We used group-based trajectory modeling and logistic regressions for the analyses. On average, self-reported mental health improved during incarceration. Two distinct groups of mental health trajectories were identified: The majority (81%) reported relatively low levels of mental health problems, remaining stable over time. A small group (19%) reported high distress after prison entry with improvements over time. Older age, pre-existing functional impairment due to alcohol or drug use, diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, debts, use of psychiatric care during detention, and a more severe experience of detention were associated with membership in the second group. Group membership did not predict reoffending. The study confirms prior findings illustrating a generally positive change in mental health symptoms during detention. The course of mental health was associated with pre-existing socio-demographic and psychological characteristics that seem worthy to be considered in correctional treatment plans. Changes in mental health did not result in better legal outcomes. An interesting avenue for future research would be to examine changes in specific mental health symptoms or disorders in relation to recidivism risk.
This qualitative study examined adult perspectives on the adjustments children face through the process of paternal incarceration and eventual release. While the United States leads the world in incarceration, 95% of imprisoned individuals return to community life. Despite poor outcomes for children with incarcerated fathers, less is known as to how they fair after fathers' release. Conceptualizing paternal incarceration and reentry as linked rather than disparate events, this study examines perspectives on family separation, reunification, and children's adjustment when fathers return from prison. The sample consisted of 38 participants (19 previously incarcerated fathers, nine coparenting mothers, and 10 relatives) who shared perspectives on 63 children's adjustments. The semistructured interviews were analyzed via thematic analysis. Two main themes were evident: (a) Paternal incarceration has a lasting toll on children that complicates reunification processes, introduces hurdles to maintaining togetherness, and is tied to changes in children's behaviors; and (b) reentry renews opportunity for father involvement that bolsters resilience despite ongoing systemic vulnerabilities. Postrelease family reunification may present challenges for children's adjustment, though supported transitions may curb some concerns. The findings call for strengths‐oriented, needs‐focused, and evidence‐based reentry strategies that support entire family systems.
Using a survey sample comprised of predominantly low‐income fathers of color, we examine whether child support debt (arrears) is associated with fathers' poor physical health, depression, and material hardship 9 years after their child's birth. About 70% of the $113.5 billion in outstanding arrears is held by men earning $10,000 or less, and an emerging body of research suggests arrears can negatively impact economically disadvantaged fathers of color and their families. Drawing on fathers' data from the first five waves of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS; N = 1614), we use multivariate regressions to assess the relationship between child support arrears and fathers' physical health, depression, and material hardship. We examine three different measures of arrears and assess the robustness of our results to model specifications that account for selection into arrears. Fathers with arrears and with higher arrears are more likely to experience poor physical health, depression, and material hardship, and these associations are more pronounced for fathers with high arrears burdens relative to their incomes. Results are robust to different measurements of arrears, who reports them (father or mother), and across model specifications (lagged dependent variables and inverse probability weighted analyses). Disadvantaged fathers with arrears fare far worse physically, psychologically, and economically than those with no arrears. Findings from our study add to growing research documenting harmful consequences of child support debt and point to an important avenue through which ostensibly race neutral family policies may disadvantage low‐income men of color.
Neoliberal governance has become a defining feature of our social world, fast‐tracking the commodification of human interaction, particularly within capitalist economies. Neoliberalism’s intensification of capitalist social relations shifted social institutions such as education, healthcare, and criminal justice to resemble profit‐oriented enterprises. A preeminent consequence of this shift for the administration of criminal justice is the rapid expansion of monetary sanctions in the form of pay‐to‐stay fees. Our article contributes to scholarship on neoliberal governance and social institutions by exploring how lawmakers justify and frame the imposition and recoupment of pay‐to‐stay fees. We draw from a novel dataset compiled by the authors on pay‐to stay in the state of Illinois, which consists of state‐level pay‐to‐stay statutes, transcripts of legislative debates on the ratification of pay‐to‐stay statutes, and 102 civil complaints from 1997 to 2015 initiated on behalf of the Illinois Department of Corrections against currently and formerly incarcerated people to compel the payment of pay‐to‐stay fees. Our analysis suggests that in the era of neoliberal governance, consumerism is an institutional logic that lawmakers draw from to adopt pay‐to‐stay as a legal template in an effort to foster a producer–consumer relationship between incarcerated people and the state, thereby producing incarceration as a public commodity.
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Academics, policymakers, and practitioners alike are increasingly interested in criminal legal debt stemming from financial sanctions and its consequences on individuals and families. Most prior work has focused on justice system exposure and the accumulation of fines, fees, and costs. This study assesses whether owing criminal court debt is a factor in keeping people tied to the justice system in the short-term yet critical window after release from prison. In addition, I examine whether being under supervision (i.e., probation or parole) increases court-related debt. Relying on longitudinal survey data from the Returning Home Study, results suggest the existence of a feedback loop whereby one’s status as being under correctional supervision at release from prison leads to increased debt, which in turn increases the chance of remaining under supervision during the first year out. The findings have implications for law and policy and raise fundamental questions about the role of revenue generation in criminal justice.
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In line with emerging work on the role of fatherhood in prisoner reentry, this study directs attention to the financial obligations that connect fathers to their families in reentry. Specifically, the study provides a descriptive picture of soon-to-be-released male state prisoners with child support obligations using a multi-state, longitudinal dataset, and examines whether characteristics of incarcerated men with child support orders and associated debt are significantly different from incarcerated males without child support orders. Whether males attached to comprehensive reentry programs received more services related to their debt obligation after prison release compared with non-program participants is also analyzed. Findings show that although prisoners identify having substantial needs vis-à-vis child support obligations, few reported receiving assistance related to these needs upon release. However, reentry program participants received significantly more child support–related services than nonprogram participants. Implications for community services and support for returning prisoners with child support orders and related needs are discussed.
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In 2000, the Urban Institute (UI) launched an ongoing investment in prisoner reentry research to better understand the pathways of successful reintegration, the social and fiscal costs of current policies, and the impacts of incarceration and reentry on individuals, families, and communities. Over the past six years, this research portfolio has informed a broad set of policy and practice discussions about the challenges facing former prisoners. This document highlights UI's original research findings across several key dimensions of prisoner reentry. In addition, it points to recent and relevant reports published by UI that provide more in-depth research and related findings.
Although research shows that involvement in crime varies across immigrant generations, less is known about why this is so. Using 13 waves of National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 data, we examine the influence of marriage—a key correlate of desistance from crime—to understand more fully patterns of offending across immigrant generations during the transition to adulthood. Results indicate a lower prevalence of offending among first-generation immigrants compared with their second-generation and third-plus-generation peers; however, among active offenders, rates of offending are similar across groups. Notably, marriage exerts a significantly stronger effect on offending for second-generation immigrants, suggesting that, while assimilation may be associated with more offending, it is also associated with a greater potency of marriage in promoting desistance from crime.
The historic increase in U.S. incarceration rates made the transition from prison to community common for poor, prime-age men and women. Leaving prison presents the challenge of social integration—of connecting with family and finding housing and a means of subsistence. The authors study variation in social integration in the first months after prison release with data from the Boston Reentry Study, a unique panel survey of 122 newly released prisoners. The data indicate severe material hardship immediately after incarceration. Over half of sample respondents were unemployed, two-thirds received public assistance, and many relied on female relatives for financial support and housing. Older respondents and those with histories of addiction and mental illness were the least socially integrated, with weak family ties, unstable housing, and low levels of employment. Qualitative interviews show that anxiety and feelings of isolation accompanied extreme material insecurity. Material insecurity combined with the adjustment to social life outside prison creates a stress of transition that burdens social relationships in high-incarceration communities.
This article examines changes in child support orders over the past ten years across states. Specifically, this article looks at changes over time; the impact of welfare reform on child support orders; and the extent to which child support orders adequately reflect typical expenditures on children. The methodology employed was a mail survey of the State Courts and Child Support Enforcement Agencies of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Results of the study indicated a wide variation in child support orders across the states for families in similar circumstances. In addition, states with high public assistance payments tended to have lower child support payments and vice versa. Finally, in the vast majority of states, child support orders did not adequately reflect typical expenditures on children.