First-of-its-kind report finds children are being imprisoned nationwide when families can’t pay fines levied by juvenile justice system
Many states are incarcerating poor children whose families can’t afford to pay juvenile court fees and fines, a report published Wednesday finds, which amounts to punishing children for their families’ poverty—and that may be unconstitutional.
Although the growing practice of incarcerating adults who are unable to pay municipal and court fees and fines has been documented for several years, as Common Dreams has noted, the latest report from the Juvenile Law Center is the first in-depth examination of the practice within the juvenile justice system.
The report, “Debtor’s Prison for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System” (pdf), documents the results of a survey of 183 people involved in the juvenile justice system—including lawyers, family members, and adults who had been incarcerated as children in the juvenile justice system—in 41 states.
The report authors discovered that in most states there is a pile-up of fees and fines imposed on children and their families once a child enters the juvenile justice system, and that “[m]any statutes establish that youth can be incarcerated or otherwise face a loss of liberty when they fail to pay.”
There are myriad ways in which juvenile court systems levy fines on children’s families, the report authors found, and then imprison those children when their families are too poor to pay the mounting costs:
Many states impose a monthly fee on families whose children are sentenced to probation. When a family can’t pay the monthly fee, that counts as a probation violation, and the child is in most cases incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility.
If children are sentenced to a “diversion program,” or a community-based program meant to keep them out of detention and help them reintegrate into their communities, the families must pay the costs of such a program. When poor children are unable to pay, they are simply incarcerated instead.
Families in most states must pay for their children’s court-ordered evaluations and tests (such as mental health evaluations, STD tests, and drug and alcohol assessments). Failure to obtain certain evaluations may result in a failure to be granted bond by the court, which means the child would remain in juvenile detention. Or if the tests are performed and the family subsequently can’t pay for them, that counts as a probation violation and the child is re-sentenced, which can mean being incarcerated.
Some sentences involve a simple fine, such as truancy, and failure to pay results in the child’s imprisonment. “Even when fines are not mandated by statute, they may be treated as mandatory in practice,” the report authers note, describing one impoverished child’s experience with a $500 truancy fine in Arkansas:
One individual who had been in the juvenile justice system there reported that he spent three months in a locked facility at age 13 because he couldn’t afford the truancy fine. He appeared in court without a lawyer or a parent and was never asked about his capacity to pay or given the option of paying a reduced amount. He assumed he had to either pay the full fine or spend time in jail.
He explained, “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.”