Juvenile Justice

Court fines and fees trap juvenile defendants in cycle of debt, new study finds

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Young teen in handcuffs

A report says fines and fees for juveniles who get in trouble with the law trap them in debt and push them toward recidivism.

The report (PDF) was published Thursday by the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia public interest law firm for children and teens. It also contends that obligations to pay court costs increase the likelihood that kids will commit new crimes.

Teenagers of color and poor kids are disproportionately likely to be arrested, even when compared to white teens with similar charges and history, the report says. That places the burden of these laws disproportionately on those families.

The New York Times reported on the Juvenile Law Center’s report Wednesday, with a piece focusing on a 16-year-old boy from Jacksonville, Florida. The Jacksonville youth was charged with battery at age 13 because he ran into a teacher while “horsing around” in a hallway.

Since then, the article says, he’s met the terms of his probation and stayed out of trouble with the law. After a year of probation with no further trouble, the battery conviction was supposed to be reduced to a misdemeanor.

But the teen’s single mother couldn’t afford $200 in court and public defender fees, so his probation was extended 14 more months until they could find the money, the article says. And because their county charges a dollar a day for probation services, they’ve been charged another $868 that they haven’t been able to pay.

Probation systems entrapping people in debt have become a topic of national conversation as lawsuits against for-profit probation companies have proliferated. In April, the ABA submitted an amicus brief in one of those lawsuits to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the House of Delegates recently passed a resolution condemning for-profit probation systems that jail people who can’t afford fees. But less has been said about how this issue affects juveniles, the New York Times said.

The JLC’s report says every state charges at least one kind of fee, and most charge multiple fees. These include court costs, fines, restitution, diversion fees, court-ordered evaluation fees, fees for care of a detained child, probation fees and fees to file for expungement of a juvenile record. One study found that the average cost in Alameda County, California, was $2,000—two months’ earnings for a parent making the federal minimum wage.

Inability to afford the fees can lead to more fees; prevent the teen from entering a diversion program or threaten loss of a driver’s license. Failure to pay can be counted as a parole violation, sometimes sending the teen or a parent to detention.

And that leads to bad outcomes. In addition to straining the budgets of families that have trouble paying the fines, court-related debt is correlated with increased recidivism. That’s according to a companion JLC study published that looked at outcomes for juveniles in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The recidivism rate remained higher even after controlling for demographics and case characteristics, the report says.

When kids go back to detention, juvenile justice studies (PDF) dating as far back as the 1980s suggest that they’re more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted and more likely to commit suicide. Detention based only on inability to pay may also be unconstitutional, the report contends.

“Asking people to pay what they don’t have doesn’t help anyone,” Jessica Feierman, the principal author of the study, told the New York Times.

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