By Christopher Zoukis
Lower-income and racial and ethnic minority youth are far more likely to face incarceration or probation because of an inability to pay debts imposed by the justice system, according to a report issued by Philadelphia's Juvenile Law Center.
The legal aid and advocacy group analyzed state laws on the fines, fees, restitution and other costs that juvenile courts impose, and drew this conclusion in a 40-page report titled Debtor's Prison for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System.
Each year, about a million youth pass through the juvenile justice system. The new study examines eight types of financial burdens used by at least some states -- the number of categories and the total burden vary greatly among the states. The states also differ in whether judges are allowed to consider a family's financial resources and reduce or waive fees in appropriate cases.
For example, every state has some form of restitution costs, but that's the only juvenile justice cost imposed under New York's state law. A few states limit juvenile court costs to restitution and the cost of any care provided to the youth, but other states may apply up to five other categories of costs that can be imposed on youths, parents or both. These may include fines, costs for probation or other supervision, costs to participate in diversion programs or other alternatives to incarceration, testing or evaluation costs, and legal system costs or fees, such as payments for public defender services, or to have a juvenile record sealed or expunged.
One part of the report surveyed nearly 200 people connected with juvenile justice - including attorneys, adults who were incarcerated as juveniles, and family members - who note how juvenile justice costs can have counter-productive effects. For example, when a family is unable to pay fees to have a youth on probation, each failure to pay may count as a probation offense, likely sending the youth to jail.
The same can be true of community-based diversion programs intended as alternatives to incarceration. When a family can't pay the costs to participate, the youth will likely be turned away from the alternative program and instead incarcerated. Similarly, inability to pay court-mandated tests, such as mental health or alcohol or drug evaluations, can mean the youth will be denied bail and will stay in juvenile detention. This very notion is counterintuitive and counter-active to a system that should be focused on rehabilitation. It punishes youth for their socio-economic statuses.
The report was accompanied by a research paper done by two criminologists on the little-studied relationship between financial costs for juvenile offenders and recidivism. Tracking all juvenile offenders coming off active court supervision in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, during 2013, the researchers found higher financial penalties increase, rather than reduce, the likelihood a juvenile will reoffend within the next two years, even after controlling for demographics and type of case.
Not surprisingly, their study found financial penalties had the most impact on low-income and minority youth. Because minority youth were more likely to still owe for juvenile justice system costs and any required restitution payments after their cases were ended, the research found a direct link between court-ordered financial obligations and increased racial disparity. Inability to pay such costs, the researchers found, frequently leads low-income and minority youth to face added costs, have to remain longer in probation, or receive additional punishments.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com