Young People Who Can't Pay Court Fees Are Getting Trapped In The Criminal Justice System

By Paul McLeod

Children across the country aren’t able to leave the juvenile criminal justice system when administrative fines and fees pile up. A new bill in Congress would end this.

Spencer Grant / Alamy Stock Photo

Spencer Grant / Alamy Stock Photo

Shyara Hill’s five-year struggle with the criminal justice system started because she hit a boy at school who had been bullying her little brother.

Hill was 16 years old and a student at Upper Darby High School, a Philadelphia-area school with more than 3,500 students. She was sent to the office of a vice principal who never showed up. She says that after hours of waiting, she tried to leave, and that’s when security guards blocked her. When she tried to push past them, they charged her with assault.

“Every time I tried to squeeze between them, they’d say ‘Assault one, assault two,’” she said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.

She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to community service and a year of probation.

“They told me that if I just pled guilty to whatever they said I did, I would just have a record and it would be gone when I turned 18. And I wouldn’t have to worry about anything,” she said. “Then I found out that’s not true.”

At 20 years old, she was still on probation. Not because she had reoffended but because she hadn’t paid hundreds of dollars in administrative fees. Most jurisdictions across the country allow courts to charge youths with administrative fees, public defender fees, probation supervision fees, fines, and an array of other charges.

Often, paying these fees is a condition for being cleared from the system. If a family can’t afford the fees, the child can end up trapped in indefinite parole. More parole can mean more supervision and court fees, pushing a resolution even further away. In some scenarios, not paying the fees can even lead to incarceration, according to Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of the Pennsylvania-based Juvenile Law Center.

Because there has been little federal attention paid to the issue, “we just don’t have a really comprehensive sense of how widespread the problem is,” said Feierman, but black and Hispanic youths are believed to be disproportionately affected.

In 2018, California became the first state to ban all fees for incarceration, court appearances, probation, or drug testing. Contra County reimbursed hundreds of people who had paid such fees. Washington state also passed legislation, and bills have been introduced in Nevada and Maryland.

But most of the country still allows for juvenile justice fees. Activists say the number of people affected by them is unknown. In recent years, there has been a push to change the system, and now there is a bill in Congress to take the movement nationwide. California Rep. Tony Cardenas introduced a bill that would authorize up to $500 million in annual federal funds to end juvenile justice fees. The End Debtor’s Prison for Kids Act would offer the states grants to fund mental and behavioral health programs in exchange for ending the practice.

Fees may also increase recidivism by impeding reintegration into society. Studies have found a correlation between fines and higher recidivism rates, though small sample sizes have prevented findings of a causal relationship. A three-year study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the fees placed financial strain on families and hindered rehabilitation.

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