Federal Managers Association
Opinions & Editorials
- The Bureau of Prisons Seemingly Doesn't Care About Victims Or Children. Will the Deputy Attorney General Show That She Does? - September 27, 2021
Opinion by Jason R. Wojdylo
Jason Wojdylo recently retired as a senior law enforcement official within the U.S. Marshals Service after spending years trying unsuccessfully to persuade the Bureau of Prisons to change its practices to make federal inmates pay court-ordered restitution, fines, forfeiture, child support, and other debts. He is also Vice President for Law Enforcement Operations of the U.S. Marshals Service chapter of the Federal Managers Association.
A recent series first reported by The Washington Post exposed longstanding failures at the Bureau of Prisons.
History demonstrates the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has little interest in requiring federal inmates to uphold their financial obligations by paying victim restitution. In fact, the latest Inmate Financial Responsibility Program information published on BOP’s website reflects collections data as of September 30, 2012, raising questions whether Program mismanagement has been ongoing for the better part of the past decade. Additional victims of the system are children of inmates. No evidence suggests BOP makes any effort to collect delinquent child support from its inmate population.
The Office of Child Support Enforcement resides within the Department of Health and Human Services. Last year it collected $34.9 billion in child support and served 13.8 million children. Its federal partners include the Departments of Treasury, Defense, Labor, State, Veterans Affairs, and the Social Security Administration—but astonishingly not the Department of Justice (DOJ). In 1998, Congress improved upon the Child Support Recovery Act and provided additional enforcement tools to address delinquencies through the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act. The Act makes it a federal crime for an individual to willfully fail to pay child support obligations. Penalties include restitution, fine, and imprisonment.
After The Washington Post reported on BOP failures, Congress raised serious questions leading the Deputy Attorney General—new to her post—to acknowledge “the Bureau must take appropriate steps to prevent inmates from using such accounts to engage in unlawful activity or to avoid obligations like paying court-ordered restitution to victims.” She made no specific reference to child support, presumably because BOP’s Correctional Programs Division subsequently told staff, “Inmate accounts must be carefully scrutinized for…avoiding payment of financial obligations” and further directed them to be “familiar with…Program Statements related to inmate accounts and financial responsibilities.” Paradoxically, BOP’s own policy does not recognize state court orders as most often the source of delinquent child support obligations, causing significant dollars to be left in BOP inmate accounts, out of reach of local, state, and tribal courts, as well as their enforcement agencies.
BOP shielding federal inmate funds has been a decade’s old practice. The American people, however, should trust the recent commitment of the Deputy Attorney General to fix this obvious problem. Her Office of Legislative Affairs recently told Congress, “We assure you that the Department takes very seriously its responsibility to make sure that individuals convicted of crimes meet their financial obligations to their victims and the government.” Still, no answers were provided to a series of specific questions in four separate letters to DOJ and BOP between late June and early August from both Senate and House lawmakers.
If the Deputy Attorney General is truly serious, she must direct BOP to participate in the Treasury Department’s financial screening program among “reforms to its current policies and procedures.” The Treasury Offset Program provides an automated system with built-in due process to collect past-due debts owed to state and federal agencies. Of the billions of dollars collected each year, none come from inmate accounts managed and controlled by BOP which shields its inmate population from the same collection requirements that are imposed on every other non-incarcerated American.
As a firmly-established enabler, DOJ will likely not prosecute any federal inmate under the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act. Yet, with more than $140 million on deposit in BOP-managed and -controlled accounts, DOJ has an opportunity to require inmates to meet their legal and moral obligations to contribute to the financial support of children who otherwise go without. DOJ should start by partnering with the Office of Child Support Enforcement and Treasury’s Bureau of Fiscal Service.
According to the National Child Support Enforcement Association, an inmate who stays engaged in a child’s life by providing financial and emotional care helps preserve a parent-child relationship for the benefit of the child. Imagine what even a nominal dollar amount in support would mean to a child’s nutrition, school supplies—a backpack, notebook, pencils, lunchbox—or activities.
The Deputy Attorney General—DOJ’s second in command—bears supervisory responsibility for BOP. She has ultimate authority to fix this blatant failure in BOP practices once and for all. Let’s pray she can deliver comprehensive reforms, in her words, “as promptly as possible.”