High Cost, Young Age: Sentencing Youth to a Life of Debt

Every day my colleagues and I at the East Bay Community Law Center see the same story unfold: young people admit to relatively minor offenses and are placed on juvenile probation. Probation often includes many hours of community service, work weekends, short stints in juvenile hall, job training, and several months on an electronic monitor. When young people graduate from the juvenile justice system, they have, by any reasonable measure, repaid their debt to society. But one debt is not easily repaid: the hundreds and even thousands of dollars in fines, fees and restitution that young people and their families owe as a result of their cases.

There is growing awareness about the crippling costs imposed on adults in the criminal justice system. On the federal level, the Department of Justice is also focusing on adult reentry services. But little light is shed on similar problems in the juvenile court system.

In California, court-involved youth continue to pay for their mistakes years after they complete their sentence. They have juvenile court records that, contrary to popular belief, are not automatically sealed. With juvenile records, jobs are hard to get. And they are now saddled with a mountain of debt.

In Alameda County -- arguably one of most liberal counties in the country -- the juvenile court fees are steep. Families are billed $15 for each day that their children are on electronic monitoring, $25.29 for each night in juvenile hall, $28.68 for court-ordered drug tests, and $90 for each month that their children are on probation, among other fees. The tab adds up quickly. If a family does not pay, the debt is forwarded to the Tax Franchise Board and the parents' wages are garnished. To make matters worse, youth are charged a non-refundable fee of $150 to apply for record sealing, without any guarantee that the record will be sealed.

By law, most of the fees can be waived, but it's not clear how often this happens. Families are confused about who to speak with, don't know to ask for a waiver, or don't speak the same language as the officials who grant waivers. Poor families scraping by with one income may get no waiver. The result: court-involved youth and their families, most of whom are already impoverished, are pushed further into poverty.

Add restitution and fines to the tab and the amount owed becomes an impossible debt. Youth are ordered to pay hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars in restitution to the victim. In Alameda County, young defendants are also ordered to pay a restitution fine of $25 for a misdemeanor and $100 for a felony.

When young people fail to pay restitution or fines, they remain on probation, incurring further probation fees and more debt. Upon termination of juvenile probation, the debt is converted into a civil judgment. This means youth enter adulthood with a civil judgment against them, jeopardizing their credit and ability to get school or home loans.

These costs beg the questions of why and to what end. Given that the vast majority of court-involved youth and their families are poor and can't pay, the fees do little to help counties recoup their operating costs. In the context of restitution, both defendants and victims lose out. Defendants, especially young ones, can rarely make a dent in the amount owed. In the last fourteen years, California courts ordered over $3 million in restitution to victims, but the State has only collected 2 percent of that amount.

In California, there are two beacons of hope. First is proposed legislation that automatically seals many juvenile records and eliminates the $150 sealing fee. Second is the increasing use of restorative justice to more specifically and effectively address the needs of defendants and victims. In Alameda County, a small non-profit, Community Works West, is modeling a way of diverting cases away from the courts. Both of these efforts will help youth succeed, which is, after all, the purpose of the juvenile justice system.