Saturday, December 18, 1999

Judges rule long-term prisoners can skip child support payments


TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Inmates spending long terms behind bars should be able to skip making child-support payments until they are released from prison, a three-judge panel of New Jersey appellate judges has ruled.

The judges, in the Appellate Division of Superior Court, concluded Friday that it makes no sense for prisoners to run up huge debts few will be able to repay.

The ruling, the first by a New Jersey appellate court on the issue, could affect thousands of children across the Garden State. Lower courts have produced conflicting rulings.

The appellate panel stated that child-support obligations should cease while inmates are in prison, but upon release they should resume regular payments and make whatever back payments they can afford. The judges did not specify what they meant by a lengthy term, but family courts generally will seek a reduction in support payments because of "changed circumstances" if a parent is serving a year or more.

"Our courts do not permit parents to evade their duty to support their children by quitting their jobs or taking lower-paying jobs, regardless of any good or bad faith in doing so," the ruling stated.

New Jersey prisons and jails currently hold about 30,000 people, but figures on how many have minor children were not immediately available after Friday's ruling.

The judges - Michael P. King, Philip S. Carchman and Steven Z. Kleiner - noted that inmates cannot change their situation.

Their ruling stemmed from Joseph Halliwell's request to cut his child support from $75 per week to nothing while he serves a sentence of four years to 15 years in an Ohio prison for robbery. Halliwell has two sons, age 10 and 12, who live with their mother in Oakland, Bergen County.

The trial court ruled that reducing his child support would amount to rewarding the man for criminal behavior. Halliwell's overdue child support would total more than $50,000 if he served the entire 15 years.

The appellate panel wrote that excusing child support payments temporarily "does not reward the criminal, who is fully apprised that upon release the support obligation will be reinstated and, based upon his ability to pay, he will be required to pay an arrearage which will be established commensurate with his income."

Halliwell' lawyer, Robert T. Corcoran, praised the ruling, saying former prisoners cannot be expected to make large sums of money upon release, and huge debts could send them underground.

Whether or not the inmate runs up a big child support debt, the situation is a bad one for his family, according to Ed Martone of the New Jersey Association on Corrections, an advocacy group for inmates and their families.

"That woman and young children aren't getting paid when they need help the most," he said.

Martone said inmates should be paid more than the current $2 per day for prison jobs so they can pay child support, restitution to victims or other debts. But Martone said it's unlikely the Legislature will make such a change.

AP-ES-12-18-99 1811EST

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