Low-income children across the US are being imprisoned when they or their families cannot afford to pay court fees, Nika Knight reported in Common Dreams. Aside from court costs, low-income children also face fees for probation, health tests, care, and other services in juvenile facilities. This amounts to “punishing children for their families’ poverty,” Knight wrote, “and that may be unconstitutional.”
Knight’s article drew on a 2016 report by the Juvenile Law Center, a legal aid advocacy group, which reviewed statutes in all fifty states and the District of Columbia to assess “the legal framework for financial obligations placed on youth in the juvenile justice system and their families.” The Juvenile Law Center also conducted interviews with 183 people involved in the juvenile justice system—including lawyers, family members, and adults who had been incarcerated as children—across forty-one states. Noting “stark racial disparities” in the juvenile justice system generally, from arrests to diversion and detention, the study’s authors wrote that costs, fines, fees, and restitution “exacerbate racial disparities in the juvenile justice system,” in some cases creating what they described as “modern-day debtors’ prisons.” Notably, the Juvenile Law Center’s report not only identified problems in the system but also highlighted solutions, including promising practices, legislative remedies, and case studies of jurisdictions that no longer impose court costs, fees, and fines in their juvenile systems.
Knight’s article identified “myriad ways” that juvenile court systems levy fines on children’s families “and then imprison those children when their families are too poor to pay the mounting costs.” These include, for example, monthly fees on families whose children are sentenced to probation, the costs of “diversion” programs intended to keep children out of detention, and charges for court-ordered evaluations and tests (such as mental health evaluations, tests for sexually-transmitted diseases, and drug and alcohol assessments). When families cannot afford to pay these fees and fines, children may be incarcerated instead.
The Juvenile Law Center report described the fines imposed by juvenile court as “highly burdensome.” For example, in Alameda County, California, the average cost of juvenile system involvement is $2,000 per case. Cost can be “significantly higher,” according to the report, in cases in which young people are incarcerated for extended periods of time.
Furthermore, Knight reported, in some states parents themselves may also face imprisonment if they fail to pay fees and fines levied against their children. Incarcerating parents puts children further at risk and adds to the stresses on families already struggling with the consequences of poverty. According to the report’s authors, “When parents face incarceration or mounting debt for failure to pay, they have even fewer resources to devote to educating, helping, and supporting their children.”
While noting that a detailed analysis of these policies’ constitutional implications went beyond its scope, the Juvenile Law Center report noted prior legal decisions in which the Supreme Court has held that courts must consider “alternative measures of punishment other than imprisonment” for poor defendants. The Supreme Court has also repeatedly held that constitutional protections must be calibrated to the unique developmental needs of adolescents.
In August 2016, the New York Times published a substantial article on the Juvenile Law Center’s study, describing low-income juveniles—and especially racial minorities—as overburdened by fees. However, the Times article did not mention that parents in some states were also being jailed, and the report overlooked the precedent of Supreme Court decisions upholding additional protections for adolescents.
Nika Knight, “Debtors’ Prison for Kids: Poor Children Incarcerated When Families Can’t Pay Juvenile Court Fees,” Common Dreams, August 31, 2016, http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/08/31/debtors-prison-kids-poor-children-incarcerated-when-families-cant-pay-juvenile-court.
Student Researcher: Raquel Guerrero (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Diana Grant (Sonoma State University)