Debtors’ Prison for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System

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Author(s): The Juvenile Law Center

  • Jessica Feierman
  • Naomi Goldstein
  • Emily Haney-Caron
  • Jaymes Fairfax Columbo

Published: August 2016

Report Intro/Brief:
“Costs, fines, and fees in the juvenile justice system harm youth and their families. They also undermine public safety and contribute to racial disparities in the justice system. Approximately one million youth appear in juvenile court each year. In every state, youth and families face juvenile justice costs, fees, fines, or restitution. Youth who can’t afford to pay for their freedom often face serious consequences, including incarceration, extended probation, or denial of treatment—they are unfairly penalized for being poor and pulled deeper into the justice system. Many families either go into debt trying to pay these costs or must choose between paying for basic necessities, like groceries, and paying court costs and fees. Research shows that costs and fees actually increase recidivism and exacerbate economic and racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

It's time to focus on approaches that work.

Counties and states across the country should eliminate harmful costs, fines, and fees and ensure that restitution orders account for the victim's needs within the context of youth and families’ financial reality. These solutions will reduce recidivism and minimize racial and economic disparities in the juvenile justice system. Ultimately, state and local policymakers should establish more sustainable and effective models for funding court systems rather than imposing costs on youth and families who simply can't afford to pay by:

  • eliminating costs, fines, and fees placed on youth
  • prioritizing restitution payments that go directly to victims and are within the youth's ability to pay
  • ensuring that restitution policies are developmentally appropriate by thoughtfully addressing the needs of victims in the context of the juvenile justice system's rehabilitative model

These approaches can reduce racial and economic disparities in the system, hold youth accountable, increase public safety, and support youth in realizing their own potential.”