by Max Brantley
In Arkansas, for example, there is a discretionary fine of up to $500 for truancy. One individual who had been in the juvenile justice system there reported that he spent three months in a locked facility at age 13 because he couldn’t afford the truancy fine. He appeared in court without a lawyer or a parent and was never asked about his capacity to pay or given the option of paying a reduced amount. He assumed he had to either pay the full fine or spend time in jail. He explained, “my mind was set to where I was just like forget it, I might as well just go ahead and do the time because I ain’t got no money and I know the [financial] situation my mom is in. I ain’t got no money so I might as well just go and sit it out.” He didn’t want his mother with him in the courtroom because “I didn’t want her to see me the way I was looking. I didn’t want her to see her son being in the situation he was in….”Of survey respondents who reported the imposition of fines on youth or families, 70% stated that difficulty paying had exacerbated financial hardship, increased court contact resulting in missed school or work, or led to deeper juvenile justice system involvement.The law center analyzed the law in all states, surveyed people in the system and researched the connection between costs, recidivsm and racial disparities.
“Racial disparities pervade our juvenile justice system. Our research suggests that we can reduce those disparities through legislative action aimed at costs, fines, fees, and restitution.” Approximately one million youth appear in juvenile courts each year. In every state, youth and families can be required to pay juvenile court costs, fees, fines, or restitution. The costs for court related services, including probation, a “free appointed attorney,” mental health evaluations, the costs of incarceration, treatment, or restitution payments, can push poor children deeper into the system and families deeper into debt. Youth who can’t afford to pay for their freedom often face serious consequences, including incarceration, extended probation, or denial of treatment—they are unfairly penalized for being poor. Many families either go into debt trying to pay these costs or forego basic necessities like groceries to keep up with payments.