How Fees and Fines Hurt Our Children

For the youth for whom the fines and fees are charged, the consequences of this system can be devastating. An unpaid fee keeps courts from closing what should be a simple case, turning any future transgression into a potential parole or probation violation.
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Growing up -- especially in today's busy world -- is hard. I was certainly no angel, and I'm sure most people can remember a time they made a less than-stellar-judgment call as a kid. Whether it was having a beer while under age, or taking mom and dad's car out for a ride before you had your license, or maybe even skipping school. But despite their mistakes most kids are, at heart, good kids. Growing up is just a bumpy ride that bounces some of us harder than others before depositing us at the door of adulthood.

Our justice system has long recognized that because young people are developmentally different from adults they should be treated differently by the law. Recognizing that kids can make mistakes is, in fact, the basis of the separate juvenile justice system. Not only do we want to give them a second chance, but we also want to minimize the stigma so often associated with adult criminal charges. They are adjudicated delinquent as opposed to "guilty," their records are sealed and can be expunged more easily than adult records, and they are more likely to be recommended for a diversion program instead of going to juvenile hall.

So why is it then, that in the majority of states, youth are subject to potentially crippling fees and fines as a result of their arrests? And if they are unable to pay, which is likely given that most kids are in school and not the workforce, they can be taken back to juvenile hall or worse yet processed in the adult criminal justice system! In some of these cases, juveniles find themselves behind bars for their inability to pay fines even where the offense they were arrested for was too minor to be punished with incarceration.

Juvenile Law Center, a national advocacy organization based in Philadelphia, recently conducted a survey that found the practice of fining juveniles is widespread and creating a tremendous problem for many families. If the youth do not have the ability to pay -- and few do -- their parents are required to. In some cases these fines have become such a burden on kids and their families that in some cases the parents have had to relinquish custody of the children rather than face penalties themselves for not being able to pay. A parent respondent to the survey Juvenile Law Center conducted reported that the fines in their child's case were so steep, they were considering having him tried as an adult and housed in an adult prison to avoid him having to pay for the cost of his incarceration.

These fines and fees are not simple restitution for goods stolen or damage incurred by the child. They instead include charging parents or youth the cost of care for detained youth, for court supervision, for participation in diversion programs, for court-ordered treatment, and for record expungement. In some cases parents have even been ordered to pay child support to the state for the time their child was detained. Juvenile Law Center heard stories of parents and relatives forced to pay 2-3 times their income with, in some places, the threat of contempt if they do not.

For the youth for whom the fines and fees are charged, the consequences of this system can be devastating. An unpaid fee keeps courts from closing what should be a simple case, turning any future transgression into a potential parole or probation violation. Records often cannot be expunged if there is a balance on the account. Worse, if the fine or fee remains unpaid once the child turns 18, it can be converted to a costly civil judgment or even cause for imprisonment in an adult facility.

A 14 year-old who can't round up the funds to pay for his own diversion program -- the entire purpose of which is to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system -- can end up in prison as an adult because of it.

How can we keep the juvenile system from preventing kids from second chances rather than offering them? The Juvenile Law Center's report, which was created with the aid of a grant from the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, is a start. From there, they will work with other organizations to challenge the illogical practices that are causing our kids more harm than good.

If you'd like to join me in calling for an end to juvenile fines and fees please share this with your friends and family so they can start to understand the issue too. We may not be able to protect our children from making bad choices, but we can protect them from policies -- like juvenile fines and fees -- that will prevent them becoming successful adults.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and #cut50 on Fees and Fines in the American criminal justice system. Two hundred years ago, the United States abolished debtors prisons but a new wave of monetary sanctions is bringing back the practice.

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