Clarity, Creativity Combat Ills of Juvenile Fines, Fees

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By Jessica DaSilva

Nov. 15 — Advocates and practitioners always seem to come back to the same problem when trying to figure out why it’s so hard to improve the juvenile justice system—too much punishment.

“There’s a mentality that kids should be punished just as much as adults,” said Alexes Harris, a sociology professor at the University of Washington.

Juvenile offenders come with a unique set of issues not seen in the adult system, such as emotional immaturity, ongoing neurological development, and the need for education. Yet advocates, judges, and practitioners who are trying to create effective programs say the idea that juvenile offenders deserve punishment over rehabilitation is holding back progress.

“We need to think about punishment differently,” Harris said. “We need to think: What is the aim? Should it be to rehabilitate youth? Do we want them to be productive members of society? Do we want to really destroy their lives before they’re even adults?”

Harris—who wrote the book A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor” —said the same burdens that plague adults assessed fines and fees in connection with their criminal charges have the same or worse impact on children and their families ( Book-length Study Tells Story of Criminal Sanctions in America).

Fines and fees charged to juvenile offenders by the criminal justice system can cause myriad problems later in life, which advocates say have gotten out of hand, but many judges feel political pressure from victims or prosecutors to assess them.

The future of fines and fees in the juvenile justice system depends on legislatures recognizing that judges would be better off with limited discretion to protect them from the impact of politics, said Judge Steven C. Teske, chief judge of the Clayton County Juvenile Court in Georgia.

Without that kind of statutory change, juveniles will be unfairly punished and judges will remain influenced by political pressure to punish them, Teske said.

“All judges want is something that they can rely on so that they’re not the ones who feel like they’re sticking their necks out and don’t have any basis in the law,” Teske said.

This is the first installment of a three-part series in which juvenile justice practitioners, advocates, and others explain the challenges of overhauling a nuanced and layered system.

Lifetime Impacts

Juveniles are assessed fines and fees when they’re charged with a crime, Harris explained. Those can be associated with the cost of prosecution, imprisonment, or even charges for social services like mental health counseling, she said.

Fines and fees have an array of effects on juvenile offenders, Harris said. For example, she said parents might know their children need mental health or substance abuse treatments, but won’t inform the court of that need because they can’t afford the cost of treatment.

If parents can’t afford to pay fines and fees, Harris said they can have their wages garnished or wind up imprisoned if a judge finds they willfully did not attempt repayment.

When parents are not responsible for repayment, the debt follows children for the rest of their lives, she explained. Oftentimes, those fines and fees are converted to civil debt, Harris said.

Those debts impact their credit reports, which can disqualify them for housing; keeps them from saving or paying for college; and can come up on background checks for jobs, she said. In some states, juveniles can’t ask to have their records sealed if they have outstanding debt, she added.

Former juvenile offenders can even get re-imprisoned as adults for not paying their debts, which Harris said keeps them tethered to the criminal justice system.

“It leads people down a path of recidivism,” Harris said. “It’s the exact opposite of the foundation of the juvenile justice system.”

Doubled-Edged Discretion

Misunderstanding between the legislative and judicial branches over how fines and fees should be levied in the juvenile system is the likely culprit behind high numbers of juveniles on probation or held in detention for unpaid debts, Harris said.

However, that misunderstanding can be overcome with more communication between judges and legislators and resulting laws featuring less judicial discretion, Teske said. At the same time, judges and others working in the juvenile system need to shift their focus from punishment to rehabilitation in order to fully restore victims of juveniles’ crimes, he added.

In states plagued with exorbitant fines and fees in the juvenile justice system, Teske said it’s not a problem with judges, but the way laws are written.

Because the relevant laws are too broad, Teske said judges have unfettered discretion on levying fines and fees that can sometimes become impacted by political pressure to hold juveniles accountable, rather than preventing those kids from becoming further tethered to the system.

“Judges draw their discretion from the legislature,” he said. “We need to accept that.”

Teske said he serves on the Georgia Council for Criminal Justice Reform, which is charged with examining and improving Georgia’s criminal justice system.

Georgia has the largest number of adults on probation in the U.S., Teske said. A few years ago, they also had the highest number of juveniles on probation, he added.

But in 2013, judges pleaded with the Legislature to pass a law that would forbid them from keeping juveniles on probation just for having unpaid fines or fees. With that law on the books, judges can now point to a statute when they convert unpaid debt to community service if victims try to protest the judges’ decisions, Teske said.

It also protects judges from the politics surrounding elections, he said. Without specific statutory language, he said a judge could weigh a juvenile’s ability to pay for needed services, but choose not to convert the fine to community service due to political pressure.

“So the judge is thinking about all of that and what he really wants to do, but knows he’s still got to deal with the politics of this,” Teske explained. “If I say no to [the victim’s request], what’s that victim going to do to me? How’s this going to bite me in the butt later?”

If opposing political candidates try to cast judges’ rulings on juvenile justice fines and fees in a negative light now, he said those judges have a statute that can back them up.

The same goes for opting for sending juveniles to detention versus house confinement and GPS monitoring, Teske said. Sending juvenile offenders to detention centers increases their risks of dropping out of school and reoffending, a fact he said judges know, but don’t always feel politically safe stating so on the record.

“I have to say all of that stuff at the risk of sounding like a left-wing socialist pig,” Teske said. “But if I can point to something showing that the assessment shows [a juvenile offender] is not dangerous, and the law mandates that I must release him, and there’s a presumption of release? Man, it’s made life easier for us judges.”

Miscommunication Between Branches

Fines and fees in the juvenile justice system increased in the 1990s as a way of combating the rising costs of incarceration, Harris said.

However, Harris said much of the legislation passed by the states wasn’t exactly clear on when to impose those fines and fees or on whom.

Harris said she learned how unclear those instructions were during a number of interviews conducted for her dissertation on fines and fees in the state of Washington’s juvenile justice system.

Because the laws are written broadly without parameters for weighing ability to pay or other factors, judges thought they weren’t able to avoid fines and fees while clerks thought fees were mandatory punishments they were required to impose, she said. Meanwhile, prosecutors and defense attorneys rarely argued over the imposition of fines and fees on families, she said.

When legislators learned about how fines and fees were being imposed, she said they were shocked. Washington state law makers had assumed judges wouldn’t impose high fines and fees on people who couldn’t afford them, she said.

Changes

Several states, including Washington and Georgia, have taken steps to change the assessment of fines and fees in the juvenile justice system, both Harris and Teske said.

The Washington Legislature passed the Youth Equality and Reinteration Act, which eliminated juvenile diversion fees, juvenile trial court costs and appellate costs, collection fees for juvenile financial obligations, adjudication fees, and certain fines, according to a report from the Juvenile Law Center called “Debtors Prison for Kids?”

Additionally, the bill allowed offenders to petition the court for modification or relief from financial obligations associated with their juvenile offenses, the report stated. And not only did it give judges discretion to consider ability to pay, but required the court to consider other factors like restitution owed, other debts, and more, according to the report.

Juvenile offenders may also petition to have their records sealed if they made a good-faith opportunity to pay restitution, the report stated.

Judicial Disconnect

What’s most shocking is the racial and class ramifications of fine and fee assessments, Harris said.

Seema Gajwani, a juvenile prosecutor in the Washington, D.C, area, said children in low-income communities are usually the ones who find themselves getting in trouble with the juvenile justice system. Yet the reason for their misbehavior is often associated with living through trauma either at home or in low-income and unsafe neighborhoods, Gajwani said.

But the disproportionate levying of fees likely arises from the demographic differences between judges and juveniles, Harris said.

“There’s a middle to upper class disconnect between judges and lawmakers who are imposing these sentences on kids,” she said.

Judges might impose what they think are lower fees, such as $200 or $500, but that could be enough to bankrupt a family, Harris said.

Teske agreed with that sentiment, saying that the imposition of fines and fees in juvenile courts often depends on the judge’s personality.

However, Teske said he is aware that his county is one of the poorest in the Atlanta area, adding that it has about a 33 percent mobility rate—which describes number of students who either enrolled in or withdrew from public schools during the school year divided by the total school enrollment numbers.

That’s why Teske said he granted his officers working in a restorative justice division the ability to determine how much a family can pay in fines and fees.

Rather, Teske said he finds creative options for financial penalties. For example, rather than collecting bail money from parents, he makes kids put their own property on the line.

Teske said he asks families for juveniles’ favorite toys—usually gaming systems like PlayStations or Xboxes, plus all related accessories and games—and tells the kids that he will sell it all off if they violate their probation.

He’s never had a juvenile violate probation when he does that, he said.

Creative Solutions

As for restoration, Teske said he regularly converts fines and fees to community service, which can include joining community-oriented programs like the Boys and Girls Club or even mowing victims’ lawns under supervision of a law enforcement officer.

The reason Teske said he converts so many debts to community service is just a basic analysis of juveniles needs. If a kid needs substance abuse treatment or mental health counseling, that will take up a lot of time outside of school, he said. Kids who have higher needs have less time to get a job and pay back those debts, he said.

“If you put more emphasis on fines and fees than on community solutions, it’s going to reduce the impact and the effectiveness of that programming,” he said.

While Teske said he believes in restitution and fees, he will always place rehabilitation over money. If victims do not feel like they have received justice, Teske said he refers them to civil courts, where they can file claims against juveniles’ parents to recover financial losses.

“Are we literally going to restore the victim or are we going to restore the community by changing the kid’s behavior so he doesn’t harm it again and create another victim?” Teske asked.

“We’re wasting the taxpayers money if we’re not investing it smartly,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva in Washington at jdasilva@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

For More Information

For more information, read the report from the Juvenile Law Center: Debtors’ Prisons for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System.

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