by Chuck Sharman
On January 23, 2023, just 10 days after Ryan Everson was put in Missouri’s Clay County Jail, the 42-year-old was found dead in his cell. That his three children no longer had a father is cruelly ironic, since Everson was behind bars for failure to pay $50 in child support.
The office of Sheriff Will Akin said the cause of death was suicide. But Everson’s family questioned why he was left alone in his cell despite having seizures. Moreover, they argue, jailing him was never going to help his children, ages 17, 19 and 20.
Instead it added to the growing number of deaths in the jail, the third in 21 months. With an average daily population of 313 detainees, according to Inside Prison, the jail’s annual death rate now stands at 548 per 100,000 – over three times higher than the U.S. average of 167 per 100,000 reported most recently by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Statistics on the number of parents jailed for nonpayment of child support are spottier. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement in 2010 counted 662,000 incarcerated parents who owed child support, but the vast majority were behind bars for offenses unrelated to their support obligations. [See: PLN, Sep. 2016, p.1.]
Even when they don’t owe child support, incarcerated parents are often penalized twice for being poor – once when they can’t make bail and again when the state bills them for the costs of foster care for their kids while they are held in pretrial detention. This is legal in 12 states, where a poor parent can face an enormous debt – up to $4,500. [See: PLN, Mar. 2023, p.57.]
Like too many detainees in U.S. jails, Everson’s real crime was poverty, often entwined with addiction problems like those he suffered, too. But while many Missouri counties have transitioned to pursuing child support through civil processes – the number of related felony charges in the state has dropped by over 71% in the past decade – Clay County prosecutors continue to use the criminal courts to go after deadbeat parents. County Assistant Prosecutor Alexander Higginbotham claimed his office seeks incarceration only as a “last resort,” but it filed 99 criminal child support cases in 2022, mostly felonies, and sent 109 people to jail.
Everson’s original child support order was issued in Alaska in 2008 for $458 monthly. That was modified to $50 in 2013, as his income shriveled. When he followed his ex-wife and children to Missouri, his obligation trailed along. Clay County said he owed over $30,000 in Alaska and was $600 behind in payments over the previous year – a Class E felony punishable by four years in prison.
Yet that wasn’t the only penalty Everson faced for his thin wallet. The state’s overloaded public defense system meant there was no attorney on hand to argue that sentencing guidelines are meant to release nonviolent defendants from jail with lower or zero cash bonds. Clay County Judge Louis Angles set Everson’s bond at $10,000, an amount he couldn’t afford, which put him in the jail where he died.
Experts and advocates argue that the criminal justice system should focus on providing treatment and support to those struggling with addiction and financial difficulties instead of resorting to incarceration. No study has ever shown that imprisoning someone for failing to pay child support makes him a better parent. Instead, access to drug treatment and assistance with finding employment and stable housing would be far more effective.
Ryan Everson was remembered by his brothers, his children and even his ex-wife as a loving father who struggled with addiction but deeply cared for his kids. His death highlights the need for systemic changes to provide support for those dealing with poverty and addiction, rather than exacerbating their difficulties through incarceration.
Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics Inside Prison, Kansas City Star
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