Port: No more debtor's prisons for people who aren't paying child support

Two bills before the Legislature in Bismarck would end the state's ability to remove drivers' and occupational licenses for nonpayment of child support.

Senate Majority Leader David Hogue has proposed legislation stopping courts from denying a person a drivers' license for non-payment of child support.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

MINOT, N.D. — When someone is put in jail, you've probably heard it said that they've been sent to "the clink."

The Clink was a real, proper noun place. The Liberty of the Clink was a jurisdiction in the London area where the bishop of Winchester, and not the crown, collected taxes. For about 600 years, those who couldn't pay their taxes to the bishop were sent to the Clink prison . It became a notorious place. So much so that it's name has become a slang term for jail even all these centuries later.

Shannon Roers Jones.1
Rep. Shannon Roers Jones has proposed legislation blocking courts from removing occupational licenses for non-payment of child support.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

I bring this up because the Clink was a debtor's prison, a type of incarceration rooted in the seemingly paradoxical notion that you can get a person to pay their debts by putting them in jail. Here in America, Congress outlawed debtors' prisons in the 19th century. In the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Bearden v. Georgia , they were unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.

But while brick-and-mortar debtor's prisons aren't a thing anymore, they do still exist in practice. One might say that North Dakota's statutes governing child support are an example of this.

People in arrears on child support can be charged criminally in put in jail. They can lose their driver's licenses. Their occupational licenses. Their ability to get hunting and fishing licenses. The state even maintains a website where their names are listed, as if they were sex offenders .


Dead beats who try to shirk their responsibility to support their children are a real phenomenon, don't get me wrong, but some of these tactics seem as self-defeating as debtor's prisons.

A couple of bills before the current legislative session in Bismarck aims to fix a couple of them.

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Senate Bill 2219 , introduced by Senate Majority Leader David Hogue, a Republican from Minot, seeks to remove the courts' authority to deny someone their driving privileges for being in arrears on child support.

In a similar vein, House Bill 1308 , introduced by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, a Republican from Fargo, would stop the courts from acting against a person's occupational license.

These are sensible reforms.

Again, while dead beats exist, not everyone who is in arrears on child support is looking to avoid responsibility. Sometimes people get hurt. Sometimes people get sick. Sometimes their cars stop working, or their home's roof starts leaking, and their ability to pay court-ordered child support is diminished.

Do we think removing their ability to drive legally will help them get back on the rails financially? Would stopping someone from legally working as a beautician, a plumber, or an electrician make them more or less likely to satisfy their child support debt? How does someone who can't drive to work, and can't legally work even if they find a way to show up, make good on their debts?

When the government controls your access to transportation and gainful employment, aren't they putting you in a figurative debtor's prison by removing that access?


A quip from a friend seems apropos: "A license is when the government takes away your rights and then sells them back to you."

Even if we assume that the person in arrears is acting in bad faith, is removing their ability to work and drive an impetus to make good? Or does it just give them a handy excuse for their petulance?

There may be a certain superficial satisfaction in sticking it to perceived deadbeats, but vindictiveness isn't the goal of this policy. Supporting children is. And I'm not sure these policies, even setting aside questions of fairness and even constitutionality, are all that effective.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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