ANNAPOLIS — The Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would excuse many prison inmates from having to pay child support — a move that alarmed opponents but which supporters insisted is designed to ensure convicts are able and willing to pay their obligations after release.
Senators voted 25-21 in favor of the legislation, which passed the House last month by a 78-61 vote.
The bill — sponsored by Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, Baltimore County Democrat — would suspend payments and stop past-due charges from accumulating on inmates who are serving sentences of 18 months or more, thus are unable to earn enough money to make payments.
Supporters say prisoners often accumulate thousands of dollars in overdue support while behind bars without access to sufficient funds, which then makes it harder for them to find work and deters them from making regular payments after their release.
“They do absolutely go into the underground when they have these huge obligations,” said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, Baltimore Democrat. “We want to shed some light on it and put practices into play that would encourage them to be responsible.”
About half of U.S. prison inmates have open child-support cases, according to a study by the Center for Law and Social Policy.
Prisoners in Maryland are currently allowed to seek court orders reducing or suspending their payments.
Supporters said child-welfare agencies and family advocates favor the bill, and they argued it would cut red tape and legal costs by automatically suspending payments rather than getting courts involved. They also said it would have minimal effect on payments or revenue because inmates would, in many cases, be unable to pay regardless.
The bill would exclude prisoners on work-release programs and inmates who committed crimes to intentionally become incarcerated and avoid financial responsibilities.
Despite support from child-welfare agencies and family advocates, the legislation was opposed by 11 of 12 Republicans and 10 of 34 voting Democrats, many of whom argued that it unnecessarily coddles prison inmates.
Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, Prince George’s Democrat, worried the bill could force more parents who aren’t receiving support to turn to welfare assistance, further burdening state and federal governments.
“I think the message that it sends is a bad message,” he said. “If you go to jail, you still have some responsibilities.”