As states face huge debts as a result of the recession, and as the number of juvenile offenders who are arrested remains high despite an overall drop since the mid-2000s, it is becoming popular for state legislatures to pass laws stating that families are responsible for paying for their child’s legal fees, court fees and other costs related to the juvenile justice system. In fact, a new report by Youth Radio found that 20 states have such policies, with more on the way.
While on the surface it makes sense not to charge taxpayers for the mistakes of errant children, these fees add up fast and can be detrimental to poor families. By taking a look at the infographic below — which shows the fees based on the cost of juvenile detention in Alameda County, California — you can see that families are charged $25/day for an average of 23 days in a juvenile detention center while he or she awaits trial. That alone can cost up to almost $600 alone. Then add in the cost of a formal trial, lawyers, restitution fines, drug testing, GPS monitoring, supervision fees and the cost to seal records once the child turns 18. After all of that, families are easily looking at up to $2,000 for one offense.
According to a report from the National Center for Children in Poverty, a little more than two million minors were arrested in the United States in 2008, only about 5 percent of whom were accused of violent crimes (murder, rape, or aggravated assault). Around 26 percent were convicted of property crimes (burglary, arson, or theft). The report states, “For nonviolent youth involved in the juvenile justice system, incarceration in traditional residential placement facilities often does more harm than good. These large residential facilities are ineffective at providing the services and rehabilitation these youth need, and this lack of capacity contributes to high recidivism rates (rearrest within one year of release).”
Add into all of this the fact that our nation’s schools are filtering juveniles into the prison system with zero tolerance policies in what our politicians are calling the school-to-prison pipeline, and you’re looking at a recipe for disaster. In a 2013 federal hearing, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., stated, “For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system. This phenomenon is a consequence of a culture of zero tolerance that is widespread in our schools and is depriving many children of their fundamental right to an education.”
It’s no secret that the kids who end up locked up often come from our nation’s poorest communities. They often do not have the resources to provide programs for kids that really work to keep them out of trouble and out of the system. Schools without a large tax base cannot pay supervisors for after-school programs or counselors for troubled teens like those in wealthier districts. Asking families to pay for these fees can continue the cycle of poverty by keeping these families in a lifetime of debt and not allowing families to use those funds for resources that would help to keep their kids out of trouble, like community programs, counseling and other methods that have proven more effective than juvenile detention.
Charging families for their kids’ mistakes that they make while their brains are not fully developed, which is the reason juvenile records can be sealed in the first place, just extends the cycle of poverty. Instead of charging families, why not invest money in programs that are proven to work, many of which are cheaper than juvenile detention anyway? Instead of perpetuating the cycle of poverty, let’s try stopping crime before it starts, and before it costs anyone anything more.
Photo Credit: Valerie Everett