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  • Poor youth are disadvantaged most by the juvenile justice system.

    Poor youth are disadvantaged most by the juvenile justice system. | Photo: Flickr / Steven Depolo

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“I might as well just go ahead and do the time because I ain't got no money and I know the (financial) situation my mom is in,” said a 13-year-old.

Working-class families are facing punitive measures, including the incarceration of their children, when they can't afford to pay juvenile court fees and fines, according to a groundbreaking report released by the Juvenile Law Center, JLC, Wednesday.

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In the first in-depth examination of the juvenile justice system in the United States, the JLC analyzed state laws throughout the country that impose juvenile court costs, fines, fees, or restitution on youth or their families. They concurrently looked at the connection between costs, recidivism and racial disparities within the system as well.

There are more than 1 million youth who appear in the juvenile courts every year, and youth and families in every state can be required to pay juvenile court costs, fees, fines, or restitution. The costs for probation, mental health evaluations, and restitution payments, work to push poor children deeper into the system and working-class families deeper into debt, the report says.

“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. Many families either go into debt trying to pay these costs or forego basic necessities like groceries to keep up with payments,” said the statement released by the JLC on the study.

Some sentences involve a simple fine, such as truancy, but if a family still can’t afford to pay it, it results in the child's imprisonment.

"Even when fines are not mandated by statute, they may be treated as mandatory in practice," the report authors note, describing one child's experience with a US$500 truancy fine in Arkansas. It recounted how the child had spent three months in a locked facility at age 13 because his family couldn’t afford the truancy fine.

Having to appear in court without a lawyer or a parent, he was also never asked about his capacity to pay or given the option of paying a reduced amount.

"My mind was set to where I was just like forget it, I might as well just go ahead and do the time because I ain't got no money and I know the (financial) situation my mom is in. I ain't got no money so I might as well just go and sit it out," he explained.

Criminologists Alex Piquero and Wesley Jennings have examined the connection between court-ordered financial fees and recidivism.

“Two key findings emerged from our study,” said Alex R. Piquero, Ashbel Smith, professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, as JLC’s statement read. “First, imposing financial penalties on juvenile offenders has the opposite of its intended effect, increasing recidivism instead of deterring it. Second, we found a direct link between court-ordered financial obligations and increased racial disparity, since minority youth were more likely to still owe costs and restitution after their cases were closed. Their inability to pay often leads to additional charges, extended probation, or additional punishments, taking them deeper into the justice system.”

Ultimately, the report recommends that “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.”

“Every day, we hear elected officials talking about racial injustice, mass incarceration, and the need for criminal justice reform. This report identifies one key strategy to address those problems: eliminating or reducing the financial costs of juvenile court involvement on youth and their families,” said Jessica Feierman, Associate Director at Juvenile Law Center and report author. “Racial disparities pervade our juvenile justice system. Our research suggests that we can reduce those disparities through legislative action aimed at costs, fines, fees, and restitution.”

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