Low-income children across the US are being imprisoned when they or their families cannot afford to pay court fees, Nika Knight reports in Common Dreams. Aside from court fees, low-income children also face fines for probation, health tests, care, and other charges in juvenile facilities. This amounts to “punishing children for their families’ poverty,” Knight writes, “and that may be unconstitutional.”
Knight’s news article draws on a 2016 report by the Juvenile Law Center that “reviewed statutes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to assess the legal framework for financial obligations placed on youth in the juvenile justice system and their families.” Notably, the Juvenile Law Center’s report not only identifies problems in the system but also highlights solutions, including promising practices, legislative remedies, and case studies of jurisdictions that have stopped imposing court costs, fees, and fines in the juvenile system.
Knight’s article identifies “ myriad ways in which juvenile court systems levy fines on children’s families… and then imprison those children when their families are too poor to pay the mounting costs.” These include, for example, monthly fees on families whose children are sentenced to probation the costs of “diversion” programs intended to keep children out of detention, and charges for court-ordered evaluations and tests (such as mental health evaluations, STD tests, and drug and alcohol assessments). When families cannot afford to pay these fees and fines, children may be incarcerated instead.
The Juvenile Law Center report describes the fines imposed by juvenile court as “highly burdensome.” For example in Alameda County, California, the average cost of juvenile system involvement is $2,000 per case. Cost can be “significantly higher,” according to the report, in cases where young people are incarcerated for extended periods of time.
Furthermore, Knight reports, in some states parents may also face imprisonment themselves if they fail to pay fees and fines assessed against their children. Incarcerating parents puts children further at risk, and adds to the stresses on families already struggling with the consequences of poverty. According to the report’s authors, “When parents face incarceration or mounting debt for failure to pay, they have even fewer resources to devote to educating, helping, and supporting their children.”
While noting that a detailed analysis of these policies’ constitutional implications goes beyond its scope, the Juvenile Law Center report notes prior legal decisions in which the Supreme Court has held that courts must consider “alternative measures of punishment other than imprisonment” for poor defendants. The Supreme Court has also repeatedly held that constitutional protections must be calibrated to the unique developmental needs of adolescents.
Source: Nika Knight, “Debtors’ Prison for Kids: Poor Children Incarcerated When Families Can’t Pay Juvenile Court Fees,” Common Dreams, December 3, 2016, http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/08/31/debtors-prison-kids-poor-children-incarcerated-when-families-cant-pay-juvenile-court.
Student Researcher: Raquel Guerrero (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Diana Grant (Sonoma State University)