Youth Justice System Punishes Poverty: Study

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A report from the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund at the UNC School of Law provides a powerful explanation of the ways that race and poverty impact teenagers involved in the juvenile justice system. 

Through a series of interviews and surveys with advocates, attorneys, and experts, Gene Nichol and Heather Hunt uncovered how the juvenile justice system frequently punishes poverty through a cycle of economic consequences, pushing families further into an economic crisis while pushing the child deeper into the juvenile justice system. 

“The direct and indirect costs imposed by the juvenile justice system come down hardest on those families with the fewest resources,” the authors begin. “Unable to comply with the mandates of the juvenile system, youth and parents are punished in ways that perpetuate poverty.” 

“Racial disparities in poverty, schools, and the legal system mean that Black families are disproportionately harmed.” 

Exacerbating Poverty: Fines and Fees

Even if a juvenile becomes involved with the justice system, the consequences of their actions ultimately impact a family as a whole, the researchers note, mainly because of the number of fines and fees.  

Juvenile courts in North Carolina are authorized to assess a range of fees against parents — including fees for a court-appointed attorney, community service, evaluation, and treatment, as well as probation. 

“For the millions of poor or near-poor North Carolinian families, the imposition of these additional expenses means sacrificing a basic need,” the researchers detail. 

“When 16 percent of American adults are unable to pay all of their current month’s bills in full—and almost 40 percent lack $400 to cover an emergency—even a few hundred dollars of court debt can destroy the fragile balancing act of household budgeting.”

The imposition of fines and fees in the juvenile justice system is not unique to North Carolina. In fact, the researchers note that they’re so pervasive that they warrant a further investigation altogether. 

And while fines and fees from becoming justice-involved harm families as a whole, the researchers also found that a place where a child is supposed to feel safe and encouraged can end up being a place producing most of their hardships. 

The North Carolina School to Prison Pipeline

The researchers write that the school to prison pipeline is a large source — almost half — of all juvenile complaints in North Carolina. A big part of this, the researchers note, is that school resource officers overuse disciplinary measures, like enacting suspensions to punish youth and keep them out of school. 

See Also: From Student to Criminal: Are School Resource Officers Doing More Harm than Good?

At-risk assessment of North Carolina youth found that 59 percent of those involved in the justice system had serious problems in school, 75 percent had mental health needs, and almost 40 percent needed substance abuse treatment. Other studies cited by the UNC researchers note that 50 percent to 70 percent of youth offenders have one or more than one diagnosable behavioral health disorder.

All of these difficulties are highlighted in an educational setting, but instead of helping the youth, the report details that many officials in North Carolina punish them. 

Kicking a juvenile out of school or temporarily suspending them for behavioral shortfalls amplifies inequalities and inabilities to access education, the authors write. Because of this, the report notes that Black youth in North Carolina are overrepresented in the juvenile process. This trend can be seen nationally, as they make up 35 percent of juveniles incarcerated, but makeup only 14 percent of the total youth population. 

“The harm is immeasurable,” one child advocate interviewed by the researchers notes, saying that while the juvenile court and incarceration system is necessary, it hurts many kids who are simply exhibiting normal developmental behavior. 

The advocate concluded, “It’s bad for any kid but especially for poor kids who already have everything stacked against them.” 

Overall, the researchers conclude in their report that for young people that become involved in the juvenile system, they carry a heavy price that impacts their families as well. 

“For those who fall short, the consequences are formidable: additional sanctions that undermine family well-being, push children deeper into the juvenile system, wound future prospects, and entrench economic hardship and racial disparity. 

“The concept of equal justice under law is eroded,” the authors conclude.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill, as well as a previous president of the College of William & Mary.  

Heather Hunt is a Research Associate at Carolina Law with the NC Poverty Research Fund where she studies and documents the facets of poverty and inequality in North Carolina. 

The full report can be accessed here. 

Additional Reading: Tackling the Racial Divide in Juvenile Justice May 11, 2020

Should North Carolina Juveniles Be Sentenced to Life in Prison?

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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