It’s a monthly routine for sheriff’s deputies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey counties to fan out in overnight sweeps to capture parents who are in contempt of court for failing to either pay child support or appear for court hearings, or both, Philly.com reports. Their names are published in press releases and local newspapers, and their perp walks are seen in evening news segments. Some are released the next day; others are held in jail for weeks or months. The raids reflect not only a nationwide ballooning of overdue child-support debt, which has increased by 1,000 percent since 1986, to a collective $114 billion, says the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement — but also a trend toward criminalization of debtors. One analysis in the journal Socius found 14 percent of child-support debtors end up in jail by the time their children are nine years old.
Sheriffs say sweeps are necessary to enforce payment orders and deter others from falling behind. However, the sweeps bring in only a small fraction of the debt owed. Five large New Jersey sweeps netted 1,567 people who owed $35 million in 2016 and 2017, but brought in an average of just $218 per person. Critics say that’s because many of those who don’t pay can’t afford to do so. They liken the situation to debtor’s prison, arguing that the cycle of arrests can be destabilizing, causing some men to lose their jobs and housing and fall further into debt. A 2007 Urban Institute study found 70 percent of debts in nine states were owed by people who reported annual income under $10,000. Montgomery County, Pa., Sheriff Sean Kilkenny said. “I was elected to protect public safety” and children are “my biggest priority. So I have no hesitation about doing these raids. Even if we don’t get the money back from these parents, it can act as a deterrent.”