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Another Voice: Steep fines, fees exact a toll on juvenile offenders

By Jessica Feierman and Alex R. Piquero

In Arkansas, a 13-year-old was held for three months in a juvenile correctional facility, placed in solitary confinement and forced to miss even more school because his family couldn’t afford to pay a $500 truancy fine. In California, a mother was still paying off $7,000 for her son’s jail fees months after he was killed on the streets. A mother who had been laid off from her job pawned her jewelry and rented out half of the family home to pay for her son’s juvenile probation and placement fees.

Stories like these documenting the adverse toll that fines and court costs exert on juvenile offenders and their families are common across the country.

This Dickensian response is not limited to just a few unlucky kids. Approximately 1 million youths appear in juvenile court every year – a court ostensibly created to provide services to youths in trouble or in need. Far too often, youths are assessed a variety of court-ordered fines, fees or restitution that they cannot afford. Youths who cannot pay are pushed deeper into the juvenile justice system.

Our new Juvenile Law Center report, “Debtors’ Prisons for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System,” examines the financial obligations in juvenile court and the dire consequences for many youths and families. Youths are fined for skipping school, underage drinking and smoking tobacco. They are charged for the cost of expunging their juvenile records, the cost of public defenders, the cost of treatment or probation, mental health evaluations and HIV tests, often without regard to their ability to pay.

Eliminating court costs and fees could help balance the scales of justice and increase fairness. Recent legislative proposals at the local, state and federal levels could turn the tide. Earlier this year, Alameda County, Calif., imposed a moratorium on court costs. Last year, Washington state banned numerous court fines and fees for juveniles.

And just last month, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., D-Pa., introduced the Juvenile Fee Transparency Act to raise the visibility of the issue and to provide much-needed data and federal reporting as a first step toward further state and federal innovation.

Reforming our system of costs and fees could help hundreds of thousands of youths each year.

There is bipartisan acknowledgment that our criminal justice system is broken. Our research points to a need for solutions not only to shrink the prison population, but also to eliminate racial and economic disparities. We’ve heard the outcry against debtors’ prisons for adults; it’s time we start protecting our kids, too.

Jessica Feierman is associate director of the Juvenile Law Center. Alex R. Piquero is Ashbel Smith professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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