debtors’ prison for kids?


Debtors’ Prison for Kids: Poor Children Incarcerated When Families Can’t Pay Juvenile Court Fees

First-of-its-kind report finds children are being imprisoned nationwide when families can’t pay fines levied by juvenile justice system

by Nika Knight, Common Dreams

August 31, 2016

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.”

“[…] a grandmother had taken custody of her grandson but when facing these insurmountable fees, she was told (by a county employee) that the only way she could avoid paying was to hand over custody [to the state].”—Juvenile Law Center survey respondent

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.”

“Almost all states charge parents for the care and support of youth involved with the juvenile justice system,” the report adds. Those include fees for room and board, clothing, and mental and physical healthcare, among many other charges, and “[i]nability to pay […] can result in youth being deprived of treatment, held in violation of probation, or even facing extended periods of incarceration.” (Juvenile prisons also charge their own, often higher, prices for children’s prescription medications, the report says, which frequently results in high charges that poor families cannot afford to pay and interrupts necessary healthcare for their children.)

In all 50 states, a statute exists which deems that if a child and their family can’t afford restitution charges—that is, payment to the victim(s) of the child’s crime, which is a popular sentence in juvenile court—the child is incarcerated.

Juvenile detention facilities are often unsafe and inhumane, as Common Dreams has reported.

And the fines imposed by juvenile court are “highly burdensome,” according to the report. The average cost of juvenile system involvement is $2,000 per case in Alameda County, California, for example, and “[f]or young people incarcerated for extended periods of time, the costs can be significantly higher.”

The debt divides families already struggling with the ramifications of poverty, the report notes.

“The debt in effect creates a rift between parents and their children,” one survey respondent said, recalling that “I… spoke to a family where a grandmother had taken custody of her grandson but when facing these insurmountable fees, she was told (by a county employee) that the only way she could avoid paying was to hand over custody. Given her limited income, she has seriously considered giving up custody of her grandson, which would make him a ward of the state…”

In some cases, parents can even face imprisonment themselves if they fail to pay their children’s juvenile court system fees. “In a number of states, parents, like youth, may be found in contempt, either civil or criminal, for failure to pay,” the report says.

“Parents may also face increased financial liability through collection fees and interest accruing on payments, as well as civil judgments for failure to pay,” the report authors add. “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.”

The report authors also observe that incarcerating children for their families’ inability to pay fees may be unconstitutional:

“[I]t is worth noting that the United States Supreme Court has made clear that an individual may not be incarcerated for nonpayment if the court does not first conduct an indigence determination and establish that the failure to pay was willful. The Supreme Court has also held that courts must consider “alternative measures of punishment other than imprisonment” for indigent defendants. Nonetheless, some states require neither willfulness nor capacity to pay in statute, and only a few explicitly limit or prohibit incarceration for failure to pay.”

Additionally, the Supreme Court has held that “courts must provide meaningful notice and, in appropriate cases, counsel, when enforcing fines and fees.” This right is even more important for children, who lack both the developmental capacity and the legal knowledge to represent themselves.

“Moreover,” the report continues, “while further research is needed, existing studies suggest that court costs, fees, and fines have limited, if any, fiscal benefit to states and counties, given the difficulty in collecting from families in poverty and the high administrative costs in trying to do so.”

The Juvenile Law Center details the varying policies on juvenile court system fees state-by-state on a new website, and also highlights the few counties and states who are attempting to rectify the problem.

“Ultimately, state and local policymakers should establish more sustainable and effective models for funding court systems rather than imposing costs on youth and families who simply can’t afford to pay,” the Juvenile Law Center says.


Nika Knight is a staff writer for Common Dreams.



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4 Responses to “debtors’ prison for kids?”

  1. 1 Willow54
    September 3, 2016 at 4:49 am

    Every time I hear of such revelations about the US justice system I am astonished that people vote for and allow these iniquitous things to happen.

    This is a completely alien concept in my country (UK). Here, if a court orders anyone to take part in a “diversion” program such as drug or alcohol misuse prevention, the state meets the cost of it. Similarly, if an assessment report is required prior to trial or sentencing, the accused person does not have to pay for it. Convicted persons on probation also do not have to pay the costs of monitoring them, such as installation of telecoms equipment to support electronic ankle tags, for example, or visits by probation officers to carry out substance tests or checking of computer equipment etc. We also have a sympathetic system in relation to fines. People in poverty would certainly not be put under undue pressure to pay. Payment plans are common here, even to the extent of reducing the weekly or monthly payment of fines to pennies, if that is what is necessary to allow the person to pay and still live within their means. Prison as a consequence of not paying fines (or not being able to pay) would very much be seen as a last resort here. A major difference in our two systems also relates to bail. Courts and Police offices releasing individuals to bail do not require payment here. We do not have such a thing as a bail bond. Accused persons are expected to return to Police offices or Courts to answer bail on their own recognisance, and if they do not, then they would be arrested, appear before a judge and be remanded to a custodial setting prior to trial.

    It’s quite clear the US system is more about the money that can be made from it, than it is about justice. Until that changes, people are going to be disadvantaged time and again, and that’s sad.

    • September 3, 2016 at 7:33 am

      Yes, I also am astonished at how punitive our courts are and how judgemental and unforgiving the public is. I think this is related to how hyper-religious our culture is. It belies a basic misunderstanding of the basic tenets of Christianity and every other religion. We all use the misfortunes of convicted people to be better than they are, to make money off them, to basically commoditize their misfortune for our personal gain. It is disgusting.

  2. 3 matt
    September 3, 2016 at 8:59 am

    “It’s quite clear the US system is more about the money that can be made from it,” I don’t think the U.S. system is trying to “make money”, in this case, so much as avoiding the taxpayers picking up the tab for the misbehavior of individuals. It’s obviously not a great system, but there are just so many competitors for tax dollars, and once again, it is hard to get the public to willingly pick up the tab for this type of thing. Similarly, I don’t think the privatization of prisons was about making money (at least not from the public perspective), but rather about cutting costs so those funds could be diverted to other uses or just avoid asking the public for more money.

    • 4 Willow54
      September 4, 2016 at 12:43 pm

      Matt, the UK public picks up the tab for the misbehaviour of individuals without protest, and that system has worked since the dawn of adversarial justice in Britain. I sense a fear in your response, a fear from politicians themselves, that they won’t get re-elected if they are seen to soak the voters for more money for just about anything. Dan got it right above. It’s obviously a difference in culture.

      Brits are pragmatic generally, but we’re not so different from Americans. After all, many Americans have British heritage. Politicians need to bite some very hard bullets and decide to change this iniquitous system, because as Dan agreed with me, it does seem as if it’s set up to make money, particularly from the misfortune of the already poor and disadvantaged, and in that regard, it can only lead to further incidences of criminality as they get desperate enough to try and get out of the hole the system has placed them into.

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