Though child arrests have declined over the last decade, thousands of children still come into contact with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems each year and 530,581 children were arrested in 2019 alone. When young people come into contact with these systems, states often burden these young people or their families with impossible monetary charges like fines as a form of punishment and fees associated with court, services, and placements.
According to a 2016 report from the Fines & Fees Justice Center, on top of charging fines if a young person is found guilty, almost all states charge young people or their parents fees for confinement in the juvenile justice system and most states also charge fees for evaluations or testing like mental health evaluations, for going court, for diversion or intervention programs, and for sealing or expunging a young person’s record For more information about the fees in each state, visit this map.
Juvenile fees and fines are not rehabilitative—instead, they increase recidivism and destabilize families. Far too often, fines lead to further system involvement, including incarceration in secure, prison-like conditions where children are often provided with inadequate educational instruction, health care, and counseling services and placed at greater risk of maltreatment, physical and psychological abuse, sexual assault, and suicide.
Fees and fines also exacerbate existing racial disparities in the justice system. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous youth are punished more often and more harshly than white youth, exposing them to higher fees and fines regardless of underlying conduct. Black children are 2.4 times more likely to be arrested and Indigenous children are 1.5 times more likely to be arrested than white children. Because Black, Latinx, and Indigenous youth are arrested and convicted at higher rates, they also face conviction-related fees and fines at higher rates. Youth of color are also subjected to longer sentences in juvenile justice facilities or probation than white youth, meaning their families are liable for higher fees associated with confinement and probation. And because of the racial wealth gap, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous youth are more likely to be saddled with unaffordable and disproportionately punitive fines.
In 2017, the Department of Justice (DOJ) recognized the harms that can result from these fees and fines and issued an advisory on juvenile fees and fines. This highlighted the legal and practical harms that can result from the imposition of fees and fines and offered recommendations to ensure the imposition of fees and fines on juveniles aligned with federal law and the juvenile justice system’s rehabilitative goals. This letter was unfortunately rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions later that same year.
CDF recently joined more than 180 organizations in a call for the DOJ to reissue and update the January 2017 advisory to recommend that states not only reform these policies, but that they end juvenile system fees and fines altogether.
Young people should not be separated from their families and communities for not being able to afford fees or fines—and families should not face financial insecurity for a young person’s contact with the juvenile system. The imposition of fees and fines is counter to the rehabilitative vision of juvenile justice, instead criminalizing and punishing poverty and heightening racial disparities in these systems. We must go beyond reforming broken policies and put an end to the racist and harmful practice of juvenile fees and fines.