- Associated Press - Friday, March 28, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Some repeat offenders who don’t pay child support could spend more time in Indiana prisons, after Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation this week to ramp up their sentences.

But experts say the changes only will apply to a small number of offenders, and some parents who owe some of the highest amounts in overdue child support could end up with a lighter sentence than they would have before.

Under the new state law, anyone with a prior conviction for nonsupport of a child could face a sentence of two to eight years in prison if the crime was committed before July 1 and one to six years in prison for an offense after July 1. First offenders can be imprisoned for about six months to two and a half years for crimes committed after June 30.

Under previous law, repeat offenders who owed less than $15,000 in overdue support faced sentences of six months to three years.

Previous law only allowed higher sentences for those owing more than $15,000 in back child support. The new law signed Wednesday repeals the dollar limit and instead increases punishments for anyone who has prior nonsupport convictions.

The change is meant encourage parents to pay up to avoid incarceration, said bill author Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis.

“We want to make them pay,” Young said.

Experts say the law likely will affect a small number of offenders.

An estimated 1,600 criminal nonsupport cases were filed in Indiana between 2011 and 2013, according to the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council. That compares with Department of Child Services statistics that show about 300,000 civil cases are handled each year.

It’s generally more common to handle nonsupport cases without pressing criminal charges, said Robert Shive, an attorney at Hollingsworth and Zivitz who specializes in child support cases.

Criminal charges are used as a “last resort” because imprisoning a parent or guardian often prevents them from making money that might go to pay for their support obligations, said Karla Mantia, a child support policy specialist with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

The worst offenders, ones who have the money but would do almost anything to avoid paying, are most likely to face criminal charges.

“They reserve it for people we know are hiding assets, have the ability to pay and are deciding not to pay,” Mantia said.

Fiscal analysts at the General Assembly’s Legislative Services Agency estimate the new law could slightly reduce the number of offenders serving longer sentences in prison for nonpayment between 2015 and 2016.

Out of a small pool of parents who might serve time in the next few years, some who qualified for higher sentencing under previous law because they owed $15,000 or more will now face the same penalties as other first offenders.

Still, having greater incentives to pay child support after an initial conviction could bring success, IPAC Deputy Director Suzanne O’Malley said.

“What we’re hoping is that once they’re convicted once, then they’ll go ahead proceed and pay child support,” O’Malley said. “That’s probably not realistic. What we expect is if someone doesn’t learn their lesson the first time, we have the ability to enhance the sentence.”

Other changes in law are meant to offer breaks for parents who provide support.

Judges have more flexibility in lowering sentences if offenders pay overdue support and serve probation. A lower sentence also means judges have the option to wipe records.

Shive said a clean record could help offenders find jobs and ultimately provide reliable revenue support for their children.

“We’re trying to be helpful,” Young said. “All we want them to do is to pay their obligation.”

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