A July 25 Justice Department study reveals that 6.9 million people—one in 34 adults—were on probation, parole or incarcerated in 2003. This record-breaking figure has prompted calls for the removal of nonviolent offenders from the system.

If that happens, the first offenders to be removed should be “deadbeat dads” imprisoned for defaulting on child support they cannot afford to pay.

An obstacle confronts this proposal. An amazing lack of data surrounds some basic questions: How many “deadbeat dads” are in the correctional system? Do they refuse to pay or are they unable to do so?”

The dearth of data is amazing because the “deadbeat dad” has been a high-profile issue in politics and the media for many years. Non-payment of child support is a significant problem in the United States. According to the Federal Office of Child Support, in 2003, $96 billion in accumulated unpaid support was due to children in the United States; 68 percent of child support cases were in arrears. An overwhelming majority of children, particularly minorities, living in single-parent homes where child support is not paid live in poverty. Yet, many questions about these fathers and why they fail to pay remain unanswered.

The “deadbeat dad” became a priority issue on a federal level in 1975, when President Gerald Ford created the national Office of Child Support Enforcement, the function of which had previously been the purview of states.

In short, for almost 30 years, an army of civil servants and government officials have spent billions of dollars to track down “deadbeat dads.” Yet even such basic and easily collected data as how many have been jailed is difficult to find.

The DOJ states that 2,078,570 people were incarcerated “in Federal or State prisons or in local jails” as of June 30, 2003. The crimes for which people were incarcerated are sorted into four categories: Violent, Property, Drug, Public-order. There is no category for “deadbeat dads.” Indeed, the local family courts that sentence fathers for non-payment generally do so on “contempt of court” charges; that is, the fathers are in contempt of a court-ordered payment. This makes their cases difficult to sort out from other contempt charges.

To my knowledge, there is no national data on the number of “deadbeat dads” incarcerated on “contempt” for non-payment. (The group, Hunger Strike for Justice, estimates the number at 250,000, but their figure may well be inflated.)

Instead of hard data, anecdotal reports abound—often in the form of local news items about sentencing within a community.

The numbers are important. Prison populations are growing rapidly even as crime rates continue to sharply decline. According to the DOJ, the number of people incarcerated rose by 130,700 or by “2.9% from midyear 2002.” It is important to identify categories of nonviolent prisoners whose release pose no threat to society.

Fathers who have been imprisoned because of an inability to pay are perfect candidates for release. Indeed, their continued incarceration comes close to establishing a de facto debtors’ prison—an institution supposedly abolished more than 200 years ago by President Adams.

But are the incarcerated fathers unable to pay? An easy “yes” or “no” answer does not exist. Nor do reliable statistics. Again, anecdotal information fills the vacuum.

Some imprisoned fathers may be able to pay but refuse to do so because of grievances. For example, they may be withholding support until their court-ordered visitation rights are respected.

The story told by an imprisoned “deadbeat dad” who identifies himself as “HeartBroken Father” is probably more common. After two heart attacks, he became homeless. Nevertheless, he writes, “I was still labeled a ‘deadbeat dad’ by New York State, which suspended my driver’s license, and my professional license to practice as a Respiratory Technologist in New York.” (Revocation of professional licenses is standard procedure against “deadbeat dads.”)

By the time HeartBroken Father had landed a minimum-wage job, he owed $30,000 in back child support. Despite a perfect record of paying when employed, he was sentenced to five months of consecutive weekends in jail, at which point he lost his job.

After describing the dangerous, humiliating and terrifying experience of being imprisoned even as a “weekender,” HeartBroken Father comments, “some judges use imprisonment ... as a ‘tool,’ to pry loose hidden funds from deadbeat dads, their friends or relatives. I think this tactic is probably very effective, because no one that could pay and get out would subject themselves willingly to prison.”

In short, any “deadbeat dad” who endures prison is probably unable to pay his way out. This scenario becomes more likely when you consider that employed “deadbeat dads” have child support withheld from their wages; employers are required to do so by law. Therefore, those imprisoned are probably unemployed or have earnings that cannot cover their payments.

Their employment prospects sink with each imprisonment, even as their child support debt rises.

It is difficult to understand what is accomplished by imprisoning such nonviolent fathers. It is easier to understand what releasing them accomplishes. Quite apart from humanitarian concerns, the correctional system—especially the prison system—cannot sustain its current growth rate. The DOJ estimates that in 2001, “2.7% of adults in the U.S. had served time in prison, up from 1.8% in 1991 and 1.3% in 1974.” Now the estimate is 3.2 percent. Even if society could accommodate the soaring rate of imprisonment, the prisons themselves cannot.

In some areas of the United States, incarcerated deadbeat dads are already being released. For example, prison authorities in Macomb County, Mich., recently released “60 drug offenders, deadbeat dads and other low-level offenders” due to overcrowding. It is time for the release of impoverished deadbeat dads to become official policy in every corner of North America.