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Tougher child support law will apply to few: Experts

– 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 will apply only to a few 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 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 2 1/2 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 allowed higher sentences only 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.

Allen County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Michael McAlexander said there are aspects of the new law, like many of the changes to the state’s criminal code, which make some things better and others worse.

But generally, this change will make the matter cleaner because if you have one conviction, this applies to you, he said.

Child support collection is different from most crimes because once people fall behind, they are basically committing a new crime every week, McAlexander said.

“We are both punishing for past behavior but we are trying to influence future behavior,” he 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.

Rebecca S. Green of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.