AP

Friday March 12, 09:25 EST

Court OKs Child Support Jail Time

By BOB EGELKO
Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) It's not slave labor to lock up a parent who owes child support and refuses to take a job that would pay the debt, a federal appeals court ruled.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday held a federal law that makes it a crime to ``willfully'' fail to support a child in another state is violated by a parent who rejects available work.

``Congress did not mean to let absentee parents evade their parental obligations by refusing to accept gainful employment,'' wrote Judge Alex Kozinski. The case involved an Alaska man who owed nearly $57,000 in support for three children in Missouri.

Although the Constitution forbids imprisonment for debt in most cases, prison can be used to enforce a parent's obligation to a child, ``a matter of vital importance to the community,'' Kozinski said.

The ruling, which involved the federal Child Support Recovery Act, is binding on federal courts in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Guam.

Jeffrey Ballek quit a high-paying construction job after his divorce in 1988 and worked at a series of low-wage jobs that left him unable to pay support, the court said. He was sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay $56,916 in restitution.

The court said the evidence showed Ballek could have paid his debt if he had remained in construction work. When he reduced his income to a level that was inadequate to pay support, he broke the law regardless of whether he was motivated by spite, laziness or simply a desire to change careers, Kozinski said.

``A parent with minor children at home cannot quit work and become a hobo or go back to school as the fancy moves him,'' Kozinski said.

The California Supreme Court reached the same conclusion last year in a case based on state child-support law.

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved.