Stop throwing kids into debtors’ prison
by Jessica Feierman and Alex R. Piquero, The Dallas Morning News
September 25, 2016
In Arkansas, a 13-year-old was incarcerated for three months in a juvenile correctional facility, placed in solitary confinement, and forced to miss even more school because he and his family couldn’t afford to pay a $500 truancy fine. In California, a mother was still paying off $7,000 for her son’s jail fees months after he was killed on the streets. A mother who had been laid off from her curtain factory job pawned her jewelry and rented out half of the family home to pay for her son’s juvenile probation and placement fees. Stories like these documenting the adverse toll that fines and court costs exert on juvenile offenders and their families are common across the country.
This Dickensian situation is not limited to just a few unlucky kids. Each year, approximately 1 million youth appear in juvenile court, which is ostensibly created to provide services to youth in trouble or in need. Far too often, youth are assessed a variety of court-ordered fines, fees, or restitution that they cannot afford. Youth who cannot pay are pushed deeper into the juvenile justice system; many face removal from their families and incarceration in facilities with high rates of violence and harmful practices like solitary confinement and strip searches.
Our new Juvenile Law Center report, Debtors’ Prisons for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System, examines the national prevalence of financial obligations in juvenile court and the dire consequences for many youth and families. Youth are fined for skipping school, underage drinking, and smoking tobacco. They are charged for the cost of expunging their juvenile records, the cost of public defenders, the cost of treatment or probation, mental health evaluations, and HIV tests, often without regard to their ability to pay. They may even be asked to pay for the cost of diversion services like arts programs, parenting classes, or group therapy sessions designed to prevent juvenile court involvement. Costs can range from minimal amounts to tens of thousands of dollars.
In most states, a failure to pay court-ordered costs can lead to secure confinement for youth. Once youth are locked up, costs continue to pile on, with many families owing child support to the state, or a per-night cost of incarceration.
These policies exacerbate an already pronounced economic divide: When youth with money get in trouble, they are often allowed to stay at home, remain in school and receive community-based services, but youth in poverty experience incarceration and further justice system involvement because they can’t afford the price of their freedom.
Costs and fees also make our communities less safe. We found that imposing fines, fees and restitution actually increased the likelihood of recidivism in a sample of more than 1,000 adolescent offenders, even after ruling out many other potential factors. Moreover, the higher these imposed costs, the higher the recidivism rates.
Our study in Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice also directly links these costs to the pervasive racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. We found higher recidivism rates when youth still owe fines, fees and restitution when their cases are closed, and that such outstanding costs were more common for youth and families of color.
These policies don’t just harm the youth, they place stress on the whole family. Many families take on debt to pay court fees. Others face hard choices between basic necessities like groceries or school uniforms and the financial obligations imposed by courts. Strong parental relationships are key to positive youth development, but the financial burdens of court fees can strain relationships between parents and children.
Eliminating court costs and fees could help balance the scales of justice and increase fairness. Recent legislative proposals at the local, state, and federal levels could turn the tide. In Alameda County CA, advocates demonstrated that collecting court costs brought little if any net revenue to the county. Earlier this year, the county imposed a moratorium on court costs. And last year, Washington state banned numerous court fines and fees for juveniles.
Just last month, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., introduced the Juvenile Fee Transparency Act to raise the visibility of the issue and to provide much-needed data and federal reporting.
Reforming our system of costs and fees could help hundreds of thousands of youth each year. In one county alone, we found that more than 1,000 youth—94% of its sample of youth in the juvenile justice system—owed court costs.
There is bipartisan acknowledgment that our criminal justice system is broken. Our research points to a need for solutions not only to shrink the prison population, but also to eliminate racial and economic disparities. We’ve heard the outcry against debtors’ prisons for adults; it’s time we start protecting our kids, too.
Jessica Feierman is associate director of the Juvenile Law Center. Alex R. Piquero is the Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas.
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