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The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System

by Jessica Feierman
Associate Director, Juvenile Law Center

Approximately one million youth appear in juvenile court each year. In every state, youth and families face juvenile justice costs, fees, fines, or restitution. Youth who can’t afford to pay for their freedom often face serious consequences, including incarceration, extended probation, or denial of treatment—they are unfairly penalized for being poor and pulled deeper into the justice system. Many families either go into debt trying to pay these costs or must choose between paying for basic necessities, like groceries, and paying court costs and fees. Research shows that costs and fees actually increase recidivism and exacerbate economic and racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

Last year, with the support of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Juvenile Law Center published a comprehensive report on this subject, analyzing the laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and surveying almost 200 individuals — including lawyers, other professionals, and family members of system-involved youth — to learn about policies and practices nationwide. Over and over, we heard that costs heightened stress and led to worse outcomes for youth and families.

Our legal research showed that fines and fees are widespread. Our surveys showed that youth and families face troubling consequences including:

  • Case remained open longer (33 states)
  • Youth was sent to juvenile justice placement (26 states)
  • Youth remained in juvenile placement longer than he/she otherwise would have (26 states)
  • Additional court visits leading to missed school or missed work (34 states)
  • Inability to get records expunged (24 states)
  • Civil judgment imposed (25 states)
  • Formal petition filed for failure to pay diversion costs (15 states)

Additionally, in 31 states, respondents reported that families took on debt in order to pay their juvenile justice-related financial obligations.

We were pleased to work with The New York Times to break this story and share this critical information with the public. Our full report on these findings as well as an interactive map that illustrates policies state by state can be found here.

In many states, a youth can face multiple fines. But even a single fine or fee can be devastating. In Arkansas, a 13-year-old spent three months in a locked facility at age 13 because he couldn’t afford a truancy fine. Although the law set a discretionary fine of up to 500 dollars, the child appeared in court without a lawyer or a parent, and was never asked about his capacity to pay or given the option of paying a reduced amount. He explained, “my mind was set to where I was just like forget it, I might as well just go ahead and do the time because I ain’t got no money and I know the [financial] situation my mom is in, I ain’t got no money so I might as well just go and sit it out.” He didn’t want his mother with him in the courtroom because “I didn’t want her to see me the way I was looking. I didn’t want her to see her son being in the situation he was in….”

We are pleased with our progress to date: a DOJ advisory letter addresses constitutional and statutory problems agencies may face by imposing fines on youth, and federal legislation has been introduced to gather more robust data. But much work remains to be done.

In collaboration with colleagues at Berkeley Law School’s Policy Advocacy Clinic, we are now launching a national campaign to end fines and fees. Using litigation, policy advocacy, and public education, our goal is to reduce economic and racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, and to shift the focus of justice policy to strategies that protect our communities by helping all young people succeed.