All Across Nation, Court Costs Give Poor, Minority Juvenile Offenders No Way Out

Friday, September 02, 2016
Juvenile stands before judge in court (photo: Open Society Foundations)


By Erik Eckholm, New York Times


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When Dequan Jackson had his only brush with the law, at 13, he tried to do everything right.


Charged with battery for banging into a teacher while horsing around in a hallway, he pleaded guilty with the promise that after one year of successful probation, the conviction would be reduced to a misdemeanor.


He worked 40 hours in a food bank. He met with an anger management counselor. He kept to an 8 p.m. curfew except when returning from football practice or church.


And he kept out of trouble.


But Dequan and his mother, who is struggling to raise two sons here on wisps of income, were unable to meet one final condition: payment of $200 in court and public defender fees. For that reason alone, his probation was extended for what turned out to be another 14 months, until they pulled together the money at a time when they had trouble finding quarters for the laundromat.


Dequan’s experience is hardly an isolated one. The ways that fines and fees can entrap low-income people in the adult courts has received enormous attention in the past year or two. But the systematic imposition of costs on juvenile offenders, with equally pernicious effects on the poorest of them, is far less known.


And for Dequan and his family, it got worse. Duval County, where they live, charges a dollar per day for probation supervision, so that meter kept on ticking. On a recent evening in their sparse apartment, in a rough public housing complex here, his mother, Shenna Jackson, displayed their unpaid bill from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s Cost of Care Recovery Unit: $868.


“You feel like you’re drowning and you’re trying to get some air, but people are just pouring more water into the pool,” is how Dequan, now a 16-year-old honor student and star linebacker at Robert E. Lee High School, described his despair over what, for this family, is a crushing financial burden.


Fines, fees and restitution mandates are levied on juvenile offenders to varying degrees in every state, a new national survey of these practices has found. The effects are greatest on the poor and racial minorities, creating a two-tiered system of justice, according to the report (pdf), published by the Juvenile Law Center, a legal aid and advocacy group in Philadelphia.


In juvenile systems intended to help wayward youths go straight, the study found, these costs are often counterproductive, drawing young people, especially poor minorities, ever deeper into the maze of criminal courts and straining already-fragile families.


These measures are intended to help recoup public costs, make offenders feel accountable and repay crime victims for losses, but in practice they often do not meet these goals, researchers say. “Asking people to pay what they don’t have doesn’t help anyone,” said Jessica Feierman, an associate director of the law center and the chief author of the report.


In some places, offenders may be offered a chance to enter an after-school program instead of being formally charged — but only if they can pay a program fee, the report found. So, instead, they miss the chance for help and gain a criminal record.


If they cannot pay fees, impoverished offenders may, like Dequan, spend extra months and years on probation. In some cases, they may even be incarcerated longer because they cannot pay the daily fee for a GPS ankle bracelet. One 13-year-old in Arkansas who could not pay several hundred dollars in fines for truancy, the report found, spent three months in detention instead.


In another practice that deepens inequities, about 20 states charge fees to have juvenile records expunged or sealed; in South Carolina, for example, juvenile offenders must pay more than $300.


A new analysis of juvenile cases in the Pittsburgh area found that unrealistic fines and fees contribute to recidivism and have an unequal effect on nonwhite offenders.


Nonwhite offenders owed more on average than white offenders at the time their cases were closed, said Alex R. Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas and an author of the study, which will be published in the journal Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. Even accounting for the severity of offenses, those who owed the most were more likely to be rearrested.


Kate Weisburd, director of the Youth Defender Clinic of the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, California, recalled her surprise in 2014, when she discovered that an offender owed more than $4,000, including $29 per night for his stay at a detention center.


“There’s no point in trying to have low-income defendants pay for the justice system,” she said. “It’s like drawing blood from a stone, and it only pushes them further into debt.”


She praised Alameda County for a recent decision to stop imposing courtroom, probation and other fees.


Restitution — requiring offenders to compensate their victims for damages — presents a more complicated challenge, experts agree.


“We want kids to learn from their mistakes, and part of that is making the victim whole,” said Brent Pattison, director of a center for children’s rights at the Drake Law School in Des Moines, Iowa. “But we also have to be realistic,” he added.


Back when Dequan Jackson’s mother was unable to pay his court costs, the family was scraping by on meager slices of the father’s disability checks. Six months ago, Shenna Jackson finally landed a job, as a cashier at Wal-Mart, but the probation bill still seems beyond reach, she said, because “we are literally living from paycheck to paycheck.”


If the arrears are not paid, they could be converted to a civil liability when Dequan turns 18, a financial cloud that could prevent him from getting credit or worse.


If his family had been able to hire a private lawyer, Dequan might have been diverted to a community program and never charged in the first place.


Once charged, the court and probation fees might have been waived on hardship grounds, if the family had received proper advice from overburdened public defenders and probation officers. But bewildering bureaucracies, and a lack of sustained legal help, are common obstacles.


The courts “don’t equip the families with the knowledge they need to navigate the system,” said Amy Donofrio, who teaches Dequan and other at-risk boys in a leadership class at Robert E. Lee High School.


In the end, it took the volunteer help of justice officials who met Dequan through that class for him to obtain this year the promised reduction of his crime to a misdemeanor.


Dequan dreams of getting a football scholarship to college and has already received strong interest from two schools, he said. But for college and after, it would clearly help to have his record expunged or sealed.


The family has not yet looked into the procedure. It will cost them $125.


To Learn More:

Debtor’s Prison for Kids? (by Jessica Feierman with Naomi Goldstein, Emily Haney-Caron and Jaymes Fairfax Columbo, Juvenile Law Center) (pdf)

Juvenile Lifers Have Little Shot at Release Despite Court Decision (by Daniel W. Staples, Courthouse News Service)

Harvard Report Suggests Raising Age for Juvenile Justice to 21, Partly because Human Brain Doesn’t Fully Mature until mid-20s (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Juvenile Offenders often Receive less Justice than Adults (by Steve Straehley and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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