How Locking Kids Up Adds to the Cycle of Poverty

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.

The Cost of Court Involvement

Photo Credit: Valerie Everett


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

Yep, lock them up, that seems to be our SOP (Standard Operating Procedure).

Patti Ruocco
Patti Ruocco3 years ago

These are some good thoughts on a difficult problem. I like the way it tries to help families, and empower families to try and fix a problem before it goes further or digs them more into a hole they will ever get out of. I do believe that each community needs to tailor it a bit to their situation, but all in all, it's worth a shot. I wonder if in dealing with drug stuff we need to keep people GPS'd for much longer, or find ways to get them out of their community where all their connections are. Just a thought--not sure how it would be implemented....

Brian Foster
Brian F3 years ago

The for profit prison industry needs beds to fill, so they can make more money. They pay our venal Republicans to pass tough mandatory minimums that put low level drug dealers in prison. This is why America is the biggest jailer nation in the world, with 4% of the population, and 25% of the prison imates.

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago

ty for this important article

JL A3 years ago

One might say another form of intentional discrimination and way of trying to preserve the class divide some elitists fear might be breached or not provide enough slave labor for their profit machines

Alice B.
Alice B3 years ago

Very interesting , Thanks for sharing !!

Briony Coote
Briony C3 years ago

The 'school-to-prison pipeline' enables locking kids up for minor classroom misbehaviour. This means kids can be on their way to jail and maybe start turning into delinquents before they have even broken the law.

The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, releases inmates way before their time because prisons are too crowded, and then it crowds the prisons even more with policies like these.

Katherine May Williams

Pretty shocking stuff.

Brian Foster
Brian F3 years ago

The United states incarcerates more people than any other nation. We are 4% of the population, and yet have 25% of the prison population, and more people behind bars than any other nation. This is a result of blatingly racist drug policies that criminalize the poor and minorities, giving them prison for simple drug possession, instead of treatment which would be cheaper. Our for profit prison industry is the equivalent of human slavery. Republicans support this institution by passing tough drug possession laws that target the poor and minorities. Prison is big business in America. Lock em up, and throw away the key, so the for profit prisons can make a fortune, and pay republicans for their support. Rape is an everyday occurrence in American prisons, and rehabilitation is non existent. Non violent drug offenders cannot find work after prison because a criminal record follows you for life.