In the aftermath of Ferguson, media scrutinized the disproportionate impact of court costs and fines on low-income residents and how the financial burden posed by these penalties often led to deeper involvement in the justice system. Now a report from the Juvenile Law Center and related research looks at the consequences of court-ordered financial penalties faced by families involved in the juvenile justice system.
According to authors Jessica Feierman, Naomi Goldstein, Emily Haney-Caron and Jaymes Fairfax Columbo, juvenile court fines actually lead to a rise in recidivism, increase the likelihood that low-income youth will be forced deeper into the juvenile-justice system and help widen the system’s racial disparities.
As part of the “Debtors’ Prison for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System” report, the authors reviewed laws governing the financial obligations placed on youth and their families while in juvenile court for all 50 states and the District of Columbia and interviewed lawyers, juvenile justice experts and young adults and families in order to better understand local practices and the impact of juvenile court fines and fees. They also included a study by Alex Piquero and Wesley Jennings that found a significant connection between court-ordered financial penalties and the likelihood of recidivism for youth in a Pennsylvania county.
The survey revealed that state statutes often place the costs of several types of services related to the juvenile justice on youth and families, including the cost of court expenses, public defender fees, probation supervision, diversion programs and mental health treatment, among other obligations. Each state varies in terms of the type and extent of costs associated with the juvenile justice system, but most states require youth and families to pay multiple costs. States like Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, Texas and Washington obligate youth and families with the highest number of costs.
Drawing on interviews of the experiences of youth and families who have been involved with the juvenile justice system, the report detailed the lingering consequences of steep court fees, fines and restitution for low-income families. For some, the financial burden of these penalties forced some families to choose between paying court costs and buying food and other vital resources. Those families who were not able to afford the court costs were often drawn deeper into the system through criminal contempt charges, probation violations, incarceration and property liens, among other far-reaching costs.
The report offers several recommendations to state and local policymakers around how to fund court systems without imposing costs on youth and families who are not able to pay the related fines and fees. The Juvenile Law Center authors point to the work of Alameda County and Washington state to make their court systems more equitable.
Click here to read the report.