On Monday, California will stand up to the Trump administration and become the first state to stop jailing poor children who can’t afford to pay court fines and fees. The state will scrap juvenile administrative fees altogether in an effort to protect low-income families and children from what can only be described as a neo-debtors' prison.
When youth are arrested and fail to pay administrative fees, they can be incarcerated. But these fees impose enormous financial burdens on some of America’s most vulnerable families, and generate little to no revenue for the government.
The Justice Department, however, is standing in the way of repeal on a national scale. Just before Christmas, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded legal guidance, written under the Obama administration, that urged state and local courts to reduce or eliminate juvenile fines and fees. While the federal government remains a roadblock to juvenile justice reform, states should follow California’s lead and take the reins in eliminating these burdensome fees and fines.
Right now, most states continue to charge youth and parents administrative fees based on a range of system costs, including detention, “free” legal representation, probation supervision, electronic monitoring and drug testing. And administrative fees can be incredibly hefty: An average probation term in Sacramento County costs families $5,640. Youth and families who do not, or cannot, pay these fees are subject to harsh penalties that, in addition to jail time, may include suspension of driver’s licenses, a bar on sealing records, civil judgments and extended periods of probation. As one juvenile probation officer observed, “Most kids [on probation] are living in poverty and are just unable to pay these fees. About nineteen out of seventy kids could be off probation but for these fees … We are trying to get money from poor people by keeping them on probation.”
If youth and their families could afford these fees, the fees would perhaps be defensible. Yet many judges impose fees on families without regard for their ability to pay; a recent study revealed that “most states do not have a judicial procedure in place to consider the child or family’s ability to pay supervision fees.” In fact, the only state that holds hearings to determine a family’s ability to pay is Montana—hearings that take place without the right to counsel.
Twenty-four states have laws stating that the aim of their juvenile courts is to “preserve or strengthen the child’s family or the child’s ties to the family.” Yet placing families in debt can deepen the rift between parent and child at a pivotal time when these children need rehabilitation and family support. Loretta Wells, for instance, took custody of her three grandchildren when her daughter died. When her grandson got into a fight with some other boys, she was hit with a large bill from the juvenile justice system. With an income of just $368 a month, and unable to handle the debt, Wells was forced to consider relinquishing custody of her grandson. A guardian should never be placed in a position where she would have to choose between a child and a bill.
Lawmakers who support the fees say they are necessary to defray the state’s expenditures on system-involved youth. However, the reality is that charging these fees is ineffective and inefficient. Little net revenue is generated from charging fees to families. Some counties actually experienced a net loss trying to collect fees; Santa Clara County in California, for example, spent $450,000 one year trying to collect $400,000 in fees. Moreover, any revenue collected pays mostly for assessment and collection of the fees, not towards services for the youth. A young person could have his charges dismissed, be found not guilty, or even die, and the parents may still be billed thousands of dollars in fees. Such collections violate the California Constitution.
Others argue the fee is a deterrent—that parents will work harder to keep their kids out of trouble and that youth will avoid engaging in criminal behavior because of the potential costs. However, a recent study in Pennsylvania showed that administrative fees may actually increase the likelihood of youth recidivism. These findings make sense—a young person kept on extended probation into adulthood, saddled with crippling debt, an open juvenile record, no license and a civil judgment against her will indeed have trouble successfully re-entering the community.
In addition to California, cities elsewhere in the country have eliminated juvenile administrative fees. Some jurisdictions are exploring creative alternatives; in Umatilla County, Oregon, all juveniles can opt to do community service in lieu of paying fees. Kansas recently removed a provision that prohibited release from probation just because fees have not been paid in full. No matter how a jurisdiction decides to tackle the issue, the time for reform is ripe.
Juvenile justice policies should be cost-effective and should produce beneficial outcomes for youth, their families and society. A failure to pay fees can be devastating, leaving youth with no way out of debt, on probation and, worst of all, incarcerated.
The federal government has made clear its disinterest in reform, but states and local jurisdictions can, and should, seize the opportunity to address the harmful and costly impact of administrative fees on system-involved youth.
Nila Bala is a senior fellow for criminal justice policy at the R Street Institute.