Each year, more than 500,000 U.S. children pass through the juvenile court system. Many will accrue fees and court costs that cause irreparable harm to them and their families.
But it needn’t be this way. Government leaders at all levels can and must take a stand to protect children from this counterproductive and exploitative system.
Requiring children to pay to move through the legal process is unjust and ineffective, and provides no public safety benefit. Even modest fees and costs act as invisible shackles, tethering children to a broken system and perpetuating cycles of discrimination, poverty and incarceration.
In many juvenile courts across the country, the minute a child walks into court — whether for truancy, underage drinking, shoplifting or more serious acts — the cash register starts ringing, as is reflected in the recent state assessments done by the Gault Center. Forty dollars for a child-sized jumpsuit; $450 to cover public defender costs; $50 per month for probation supervision. Charges quickly add up, and punishment for nonpayment can be steep, including additional fees, suspension of driver licenses, extended sentences, refusal to seal juvenile court records, and even incarceration.
These financial obligations are imposed on youth without regard for the obvious fact that hardly any are able to pay — meaning the true recipients of the penalty are adult family members. Whether this includes bail, fines, fees, costs or restitution, these financial demands can have serious consequences that often pull young people deeper into the legal system for longer periods of time.
The imposition of these fees also magnifies racial, ethnic and class disparities. Because many historically oppressed groups are already overrepresented in the juvenile legal system, they are forced to bear an outsized financial burden for a system of state control.
Those in favor of imposing these costs argue that fees act as deterrents, thereby increasing public safety. In reality, however, they correlate to increased recidivism and other negative outcomes. Unpaid debt and mandated payments force youth and families into desperate situations in which they have few options to survive. As one mother described, “I got hit by a ton of bricks when I got that first bill.”
Court debt also pulls children deeper into the legal system, and the longer children are entangled in the system, the worse their chances for rehabilitation. We are setting children up for failure.
Proponents of these fees also claim that taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for juvenile delinquency, so over the past two decades governments have increasingly turned to fees to fund the court system. But research has shown that fees and costs are among the least efficient ways to fund a legal system. For example, in 2019, Florida collected just 11 percent of the $5.1 million its legal system levied against children.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges urges juvenile court judges to reduce and eliminate fees whenever possible. Some prosecutors have committed to not seeking fines and fees where state law allows such discretion and have created programs to help young people pay restitution. And every day, youth defenders advocate against assessments of fees and costs for young people in courtrooms across the country.
Unfortunately, though, state laws that mandate many of these fees mean that court actors have limited ability to alleviate the harm caused by court costs. As one court officer in Michigan explained, “Some families may owe more than $100,000 — more money than they will ever see in their lifetime. Sometimes I think, ‘What am I doing to these people?’”
In April, the Department of Justice advised state and local courts that “Fines and fees can be particularly burdensome for youth, who may be unable to pay court-issued fines and fees themselves, burdening parents and guardians who may face untenable choices between paying court debts or paying for the entire family unit’s basic necessities, like food, clothing, and shelter. Children subjected to unaffordable fines and fees often suffer escalating negative consequences from the justice system that may follow them into adulthood.”
And change is happening in states like California, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Jersey and Oregon, which have undertaken major reforms to abolish fees and costs levied against youth. But in some jurisdictions, including Kansas and Michigan, progress has stalled. While policymakers try to unravel the gordian knots of fees and costs, children and public safety suffer.
We need more lawmakers to recognize that the assessment of court costs and fees perpetuates cycles of poverty, discrimination and punishment, which in turn degrade communities. We need them to stand up and protect young people and their futures, because communities thrive when children thrive.
It’s long past time to shed the invisible shackles of fees and costs, freeing the system and the children it ensnares from thoughtless injustice.