Juvenile Justice Places Unjust Burdens on Impoverished Children

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Oct 15, 2016

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TeenagerLike many trends in the law, philosophies of juvenile justice tend to repeat themselves in cycles. At some points, juveniles are seen as immature offenders who need to be steered on a corrective course by a compassionate juvenile justice system that is guided by social workers and child psychologists. At other points, juvenile offenders are seen as young criminals who deserve adult punishment when they commit an “adult crime.”

Imposing Costs to Raise Revenues

Both philosophies share in common with the adult system of criminal justice the use of community supervision (often known as probation) as a consequence for less serious crimes, particularly when committed by first offenders. Cash-strapped states, however, have long required adult offenders to pay a monthly fee to remain on probation. Some also require indigent defendants to make a contribution toward the cost of representation by their public defenders.

Nearly everyone convicted of a crime is required to pay court costs. Those costs are minimal in some states while other states impose substantial costs as a way to generate revenue.

Those trends have increasingly entered the juvenile justice system. The obvious problem is that minors rarely have the financial resources to pay their probation fees and court costs. When that happens, courts often respond by extending their probation until they make all required payments.

Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System

A report published by the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia explains that imposing financial penalties on poor children is counterproductive. One of the report’s authors, Jessica Feierman, told the New York Times that “asking people to pay what they don’t have doesn’t help anyone.”

As the Times notes, requiring juvenile offenders to pay fines, probation fees, restitution, and court costs is “intended to help recoup public costs, make offenders feel accountable and repay crime victims for losses.” When kids have money, those goals might be reasonable, although whether kids learn anything from paying a fine is doubtful if their parents absorb the expense. When kids are impoverished, however, requiring them to pay money that they don’t have often results in consequences that punish kids for being poor.

The Juvenile Law Center’s report notes that the consequences for nonpayment of fines, fees, and costs imposed by a juvenile court may include:

  • Incarceration. The more time children spend in custody, the less likely it is that they will complete their educations. Incarcerating juveniles also increases the probability that they will later become embroiled in the adult criminal justice system. Even if incarceration consists of placement in a juvenile facility, studies show that “juvenile justice placement, especially for low-level and non-violent offenses, makes youth more likely to recidivate than their peers.”
  • Extension of probation. Keeping kids on community supervision simply because they lack the resources to pay probation fees, fines, or court costs often adds to their debt, as kids continue to rack up monthly supervision fees. States that charge interest or late fees when a kid cannot pay merely add to the child’s debt burden. The report concludes that those additional expenses serve to push children and their families even deeper into poverty.
  • Driver’s license revocation. States have increasingly used the loss of driving privileges as a punishment for conduct that has nothing to do with driving, including nonpayment of fines and costs. When juveniles rely on their driving privileges to earn money, a license revocation hurts the juvenile, his or her family, and the state government that has made it more difficult for the juvenile to pay a delinquent fine.
  • Precluding expungement of records. Most states automatically seal or expunge a juvenile record so that a child’s future employment will not be jeopardized by conduct that is punished in juvenile court. Eleven states, however, explicitly link the right to expungement to payment of fines and court costs, while juvenile courts in several other states do so as a matter of practice, despite the absence of legislation that authorizes the courts to make expungement contingent on the payment of debt.

The report cites research that emphasizes the counterproductive nature of imposing court costs on children who cannot afford to pay them. The pressure and stress of dealing with debt makes rehabilitation less likely, and may even drive kids to commit new crimes in an effort to pay their unmanageable debt and get out from under the juvenile justice system.

A Two-Tier System

Juvenile offenders whose parents are employed often receive parental help, in the form of a loan or gift, that allows them to pay fines and costs promptly. Juveniles who live in impoverished homes do not have the same advantage.

The Times cites the example of a family that was scraping by on the father’s disability checks while the mother looked for work. Their son was unable to pay his court costs and neither parent was in a position to help. By the time the mother found a job, the son’s debt had soared. As a paycheck-to-paycheck family, they had no opportunity to relieve their son’s financial obligations.

The Supreme Court has established the general principle that the judicial system should not treat poor people less favorably then affluent people simply because of poverty. In practice, however, the juvenile justice system operates on two tiers. Children who come from families with money avoid the consequences that attend nonpayment of court costs and probation fees, while children of impoverished families are subjected to the adverse consequences discussed above. The unequal treatment of kids based on family income may violate the Constitution, but it remains a reality in most jurisdictions.

The report also emphasizes that court costs, fines, and fees “exacerbate racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.” Studies show that children of color are more likely to owe fines and costs after their case ends, a fact that accounts for “higher recidivism rates, even after controlling for a host of other demographics and case characteristics.”

Fair Treatment for Juvenile Offenders

Rather than automatically imposing court costs, probation fees, and punitive fines, states should require judges to assess a juvenile’s ability to pay. Kids who have no job or savings (regardless of their parents’ financial condition) should ordinarily be required to perform community service as an alternative to paying fines and costs, while probation fees should be waived. Community service is more likely to teach minors that their actions have consequences than the imposition of fines and costs that their parents pay on their behalf or that they cannot pay at all.

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