House Bill Seeks to Spring the Juvenile-Justice Fee Trap

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In 2018, California became the first state to ban all fees for juveniles’ incarceration, court appearances, probation, or drug testing. Washington state also passed legislation, and bills have been introduced in Nevada and Maryland. But 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. Now, BuzzFeed News reports, a bill in Congress seeks to set a national standard, using the carrot of $500 million in grants for mental and behavioral health programs in exchange for ending the fee practices.

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 an endless loop of new supervision terms and fees. 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. The End Debtor’s Prison for Kids Act, proposed by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), shows signs of momentum given its co-sponsorship by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership. The big question, though, is whether the House will pass it in the face of likely inaction in the Senate.

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