Angel LaCourt was 22 years old when he was released from the Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution in New York and moved back to Boston, MA. But not long after his release he went back to selling drugs—the very crime he was incarcerated for—to pay for his court fees and probation costs.
Of the millions of young people who appear before juvenile courts in the US each year, a significant number have found themselves in similar situations. According to the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, many of these juvenile offenders and their families come from low-income, minority communities.
Fines and fees generally accumulate in three different ways: through victim restitution, baseline fines, and court fees (or administrative costs), which cover things like monthly probation, electronic monitoring, and a public defender.
And costs can add up quickly.
When young offenders fail to pay the costs, the consequences can be severe. Defendants face longer probation sentences, more time in jail, or denial of treatment.
LaCourt described the never-ending cycle of debt as “incarceration after incarceration.”
“[The courts] don’t care if you have a place to live, they just want their money. That’s their biggest thing, and if you pay them, they’ll leave you alone,” he added.
But in reality, the courts and counties rarely get their money back. In fact, the cost of collecting fines and fees from low-income families who cannot afford to pay can be more expensive than the fees themselves.
It’s a scheme lawyers call “high pay and low gain.”
Kate Weisburd, Director of the Youth Defender Clinic in California, told The Crime Report that counties have been paying all along, but there has been this fiction that families are paying.
“[Counties] weren’t recouping much to begin with” she said. “What happens is a family is billed $4,000 in administrative fees, and it would cost the county that much money to collect it. Processing costs so much and these poor families can’t afford to pay for it.”
Weisburd, a graduate of Brown University and Columbia Law School, recalled seeing family after family struggle with heavy court costs, during a time when families need unity and stability.
Court fees often drive a wedge between parent and child, she said, because parents are the ones who ultimately have to pay for their child’s debt.
When a youth cannot pay their fines and fees, the debt is referred to the tax franchise board, and will come out of the parents pay check.
A practice that Weisburd concluded “is not a great policy.”
Juvenile Judges have also taken note of the inefficient policies in their court rooms, and in March of 2018, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges approved a resolution that aims to absolve young defendants of fines, fees and court costs.
The resolution made the following recommendations:
- Work towards reducing and eliminating fines, fees, and costs by considering a youth and their family’s ability to pay prior to imposing such financial obligations;
- Recognize that court fines, fees, and costs may have a disproportionate impact on poor communities and racial or ethnic minorities and supports the adoption of court policies and practices that promote fairness and equal treatment for all youth and their families;
- Presume youth are indigent when making decisions regarding the imposition of fines, fees, and costs if the youth was previously determined indigent for the purpose of securing attorney representation;
- Do not detain or order youth to out-of-home placement or extend community supervision solely because of lack of payment of fines, fees, or costs;
- Collect detailed data on the imposition and collection of fines, fees, and costs, study their effects on youth, families, and courts and demonstrate transparency by making data publicly available; and
- Use payment plans in cases in which fines, costs, or fees are levied.
While judges cannot act as lobbyists on this issue, each individual judge can implement the recommendations in their court room, and some judges have already started.
For example, Judge Anthony Capizzi, a Juvenile Court Judge in Ohio who has been on the bench for 13 years, decided to wave all fines, fees and costs for his young defendants.
“I don’t order fines or costs in ANY case. I don’t care if its murder, or aggravated robbery, trespassing, etc. If it’s a delinquent, I will not order costs,” he told The Crime Report.
Judge Capizzi said his court should do everything in their power to alleviate issues that are detrimental to families in poverty because the working poor are the ones ultimately damaged by fines and costs.
“How can I expect a family to pay fines and fees when they are struggling to send these children to school and pay for bus tickets?” he asked.
He noted that judges are in a unique position to implement change among delinquents by educating elected officials who may not understand the need to reduce fees for children.
Chandlee Johnson Kuhn, a retired Judge in Delaware, agreed.
“Its a matter of getting the right folks to look at research, data, historical analysis, and then putting into practice” she said.
In California, state officials got the memo, and passed a bill in the summer of 2017 to eliminate all fees in juvenile court. The law went into effect this January, making California the first state to eliminate fees for incarcerated youth.
The state of California will now be paying the costs.
However, the Trump administration has created a road block to such policy changes by abandoning an Obama-era warning against imposing excessive fees and fines on juveniles.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the move as part of a broader effort to overhaul regulatory procedures at the Department of Justice, noted Pew Charitable Trusts.
The administration declined to comment on whether it supports the imposition of such fees, fees which Weisburd described as “financial handcuffs on young people and their families.”
Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.