Juvenile Justice System: Debtor’s Prison For Kids?

Juvenile Justice System

Each year across America, approximately one million children interact with the juvenile justice system. Just as in adult courts, the poor are disproportionately impacted by the process which is essentially creating a “debtor’s prison” for our children.

A recent study by the Juvenile Law Center, found that in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, we are also incarcerating kids for being poor? Children whose interaction with the Juvenile Justice system may be predicated upon something as minor as truancy but whose families are unable to pay the court mandated fees and fines, are being imprisoned in juvenile facilities. This amounts to jailing kids for being poor.

Fees & Consequences

  • Many states impose a monthly fee on families whose children are sentenced to probation. When a family can’t pay the 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 children are unable to pay, they are simply incarcerated instead;
  • Families in most states must pay for their children’s court-ordered evaluations and test (mental health screenings, 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;
  • Almost all states charge parents for the care and support of youth involved with the juvenile justice system. These include fees for room and board, clothing, and mental and physical health care. Inability to pay can result in a youth being deprived of treatment.

The consequences for the child and his/her family is devastating. The inability to pay pushes the young person deeper into the juvenile justice system. For perhaps only missing school, a young person is detained with others whose crimes are much more severe. Youth facilities are typically subjected to correctional practices that are traumatic. i.e., strip searches, restraints and solitary confinement. Simultaneously, families whose resources are already stretched meeting basic needs are pushed even deeper into poverty when confronted with an additional, unexpected monthly bill. Yet, across the country, families may be required to pay:

Court Fees

  • Court Expenses (including witness fees, transportation, cost of prosecution, cost of court operation);
  • Fees for a public defender, sometimes even after a determination of indigence;
  • Costs for evaluation and testing (mental health screening);
  • Probation supervision fees and costs;
  • Fees and costs for participation in diversion programs (designed to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system;
  • Child support to the state;
  • Treatment costs, including mental health treatment and rehabilitation programming;
  • Health care costs;
  • The cost of GPS monitoring;
  • Cost of care generally; and
  • fines

Youth and families who cannot pay fees face criminal contempt, civil judgments that follow them into adulthood, probation violations, additional fees, incarceration, property liens and ineligibility for expungement (having your juvenile record sealed).

Seems like a pretty severe punishment for missing school.

Featured Image: Screen grab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEg6eJcPrCk

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