Something we don’t always think about as youth go through the juvenile justice system – or in some cases diverted from the formal system into municipal courts or even other diversion programs – is that often various fines and fees are assessed on the youth and/or the parents. A new report from the Juvenile Law Center, “Debtors’ Prison for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System,” reveals how juvenile court costs, attorney’s fees, fines, other fees, and sometimes even restitution can harm youth and families while not really contributing to long term public safety. The report also highlights alternatives to the most harmful consequences for kids that still hold kids accountable, yet promote fairness and reduce racial and economic disparities.
Kids who can’t afford to pay for their freedom may be pushed deeper into the system, and families in poverty are pushed deeper into debt, even with the “sliding scale” fees that may be assessed for parents. Or youth may be assessed a municipal fine that they can’t/don’t pay only to find out later that when they go to get a driver’s license it is suspended for some period of time. These fines and fees often add to disparities, as highlighted in a New York Times article.
We too often take for granted that these fees and fines are just part of the system, or we justify them on the basis that it is the youth’s behavior that led them into the system so of course they/their families should pay. Maybe that second thought is even right, but if it ultimately harms the family and youth that leads to additional problems, have we really done the right thing? We don’t have to accept “it is what it is” and should think about what statutes or practices we should change so we don’t do more harm than good.
by Jim Moeser