JEFFERSON CITY— Missouri lawmakers sent the governor a pair of bills Tuesday giving men and women a longer grace period to catch up on child support payments or prove they are not the parent.
One bill would allow courts to refer those who don't pay child support to job training or drug treatment programs rather than to prison. The other would give men two years to challenge paternity judgments with DNA tests.
The House passed both bills Tuesday with wide support, sending them to Gov. Jay Nixon. They previously cleared the Senate without opposition.
Both measures were sponsored by Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis.
Smith said "fathering courts" in Jackson County already have allowed nearly 500 people to pay $3 million in child-support payments since 1998. The bill would allow the courts to be expanded statewide. If people complete the treatment or training, they could have their sentences for failing to pay child support reduced or dismissed.
Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said throwing people in jail for not paying child support "has become the new version of debtors prison" because it essentially guarantees the person will not make future payments.
"Let's set up a system where we can do better by these people and get them out of the (prison) system," said Jones, who handled the bill in the House.
The Department of Corrections estimates that if all criminal nonsupport offenders participated in the program instead of being incarcerated, the state could save up to $1.5 million in prison costs.
Smith said Jackson County court employees have operated the child-support courts without adding costs.
The bill also changes the threshold for failing to pay child support to qualify as a felony.
Currently, a person must owe more than $5,000 or fail to make six payments in a 12-month period to be charged with a felony punishable by up to four years in prison. The bill would require someone to owe more than 12 months' worth of child support to be charged with that level of felony.
A second child-support bill would allow men to challenge a paternity judgment with a DNA test. Currently, a man has a year to contest a paternity judgment, after which his name automatically goes on the child's birth certificate and he is required to pay child support.
The bill would allow men to challenge paternity judgments with a DNA test until Dec. 31, 2011. For judgments entered after that date, men would have two years to challenge the ruling.
If the test showed a man was not the father, he would be excused of previous child-support debt and would have criminal nonsupport convictions removed from his record. The person's name would also be removed from the child's birth certificate.
Smith said the petitioner would have to pay about a third of the roughly $150 cost for a DNA test. A federal subsidy would cover the rest.