Should parents share the financial cost of incarceration of their offspring? The Marshall Project explores this “deeply entrenched social policy” dating from the 1970s and ’80s. Today, mothers and fathers are billed for their children’s incarceration — in jails, detention centers, court-ordered treatment facilities, training schools or disciplinary camps — by 19 state juvenile-justice agencies, while in at least 28 other states, individual counties can legally do the same.
Groups of law students, juvenile defense lawyers and others have begun to challenge this payment system, arguing that it is akin to taxing parents for their child’s loss of liberty — and punishing them with debt. In Philadelphia, the City Council is meeting today to consider abolishing the practice. In California — which incarcerates more children than any other state, at a typical cost to parents of $30 a night — activists have succeeded in getting the practice banned in three counties. Two senators have introduced a bill to ban it statewide. Although proceeds are meager, many juvenile-corrections administrators say the payment system is a way of keeping parents engaged with their children.