Debtors’ Prisons for Kids?

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Most people think debtors’ prisons are a thing of the past. But are they really?Expungement

A recent national report by the Juvenile Law Center from Philadelphia shows juvenile court costs, attorney’s fees and fines that are assessed as youth move through the juvenile justice system ̶ and sometimes even in community diversion programs ̶ cause significant hardships for youth and their families.

The costs for court related services, including probation, a “free appointed attorney,” mental health evaluations, the costs of incarceration, treatment and restitution payments can push children deeper into the juvenile justice system and families deeper into debt.

Across the nation, youth and families who can’t afford to make these payments may face possible incarceration, suspension of driver’s licenses, an inability to expunge or seal records and significant economic and social stress.

Alternatives that Hold Kids Accountable and Promote Fairness

One alternative that is growing in popularity in Florida is the issuance of juvenile civil citations. Since civil citations are offered as an alternative to an arrest for minor youth misdeeds, no court record is generated, and court fees are eliminated. The Children’s Campaign believes further expansion of juvenile civil citations is an excellent way to hold youth accountable, without imposing undue hardships on youth and families.

Wooden gavelThe Juvenile Law Center report also highlights other alternatives to court-related juvenile fees that eliminate the most harmful consequences for kids, but still hold them accountable.

In Alameda County, California, the policy of imposing fees and costs in the juvenile justice system was repealed. A cost-benefit analysis revealed that although the county had collected approximately $400,000 annually from families, it expended approximately $250,000 in collections, not including county personnel time spent on the administration of fees. The negligible financial benefit paled in comparison to the hardships being placed on families. Other counties in California have also followed suit by limiting their reliance on costs, fines and fees.

In Washington State, the legislature passed the Year Act, eliminating juvenile diversion fees, juvenile court costs and appellate costs, collection fees for juvenile financial obligations, adjudication fees and certain fines. The bill also allows youth to petition the court for modification or relief from legal financial obligations.

“Florida should consider conducting a similar fiscal analysis to determine the true benefits, costs and impact of these fees imposed on families,” stated Roy Miller, president of The Children’s Campaign. “The results may be eye-opening, especially if it looks at the effectiveness and sustainability of the process.”

The Catch-22 of Juvenile Justice-Related Fees and Fines

The quandary faced by a 16-year old Jacksonville boy when he couldn’t afford to pay $200 in court and public defender fees was featured recently in the New York Times. Although the teen had a part-time job, the income was needed to help his family scrape by paycheck-to-paycheck. His probation was extended 14 months since he couldn’t save enough to pay the court-related fees. This resulted in a catch-22 scenario ̶  the $200 in fees ballooned to $868 because he also incurred additional daily probation fees for the duration of his probation extension.

The Jacksonville boy’s experience is hardly an isolated incident.

Poor and Middle Class Families Affected 

About 1 million youth appear mentalHealthPlainannually in juvenile court, which was created to provide troubled adolescents the services and supports to give them a second chance at reaching their potential. Yet, according to the Juvenile Law Center report, the opposite occurs far too often when youth are assessed a variety of court-ordered fines and fees that they cannot afford.

It’s important to note that the recent Juvenile Law Center report didn’t include an examination of local court or agency rules, and focused only on state statutes. In many states, fees for juvenile court involvement are commonly assessed at the county and municipality levels, so the true hardship for families could be even greater.

In Florida, according to the report, youth face daily fees for detention and residential treatment placements, along with emergency medical care fees while in treatment. There are also fees to cover the cost of a youth’s supervision during probation, and additional fees associated with filing petitions seeking to seal or expunge juvenile records. Monetary or in-kind restitution may also be ordered, with jurisdiction retained until it is satisfied. Parents may be ordered to cosign promissory notes for their child’s restitution.

Juveniles who cannot afford to pay are unfairly penalized for being poor through incarceration, extended probation and even denial of treatment.

iStock_000020989458_LargeBut let’s be clear: it’s not just the poor who are affected. Middle class families are also being pushed deeper into debt trying to pay these costs, and they sometimes forego basic necessities like groceries to keep up with payments. Siblings of the juvenile offender are often penalized, giving up extracurricular activities the family can no longer afford. The entire family is paying the price.

Although in some instances court and probation fees might be waived on hardship grounds, families are often ill equipped or poorly advised in navigating the system.

“Every day, we hear elected officials talking about racial injustice, mass incarceration and the need for criminal justice reform. This report identifies one key strategy to address those problems: eliminating or reducing the financial costs of juvenile court involvement on youth and their families,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director at Juvenile Law Center and report author.


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This Legislative Connection is brought to you by Roy Miller, Karen Bonsignori, and Tiffany McGlinchey

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Debtors’ Prisons for Kids?