In Arkansas, a 13-year-old was incarcerated for three months in a juvenile correctional facility, placed in solitary confinement and forced to miss even more school because he and his family couldn’t afford to pay a $500 truancy fine. The fine was discretionary, but the judge still imposed it. In Florida, a high school honor roll student was stuck on probation for an extra year because he couldn’t afford his court costs. In California, a mother who had been laid off from her job pawned her jewelry and rented out half her family home to pay off juvenile justice court costs. Across the country, youth and families are suffering because of juvenile court costs.
Recognizing that juvenile court fines and fees may cause serious harm to youth and families, many states are now moving away from imposing court costs on youth. California, Washington, and Utah have all passed legislation recently to reduce or eliminate juvenile court costs. These states recognize that children simply don’t have the resources to pay on their own and that imposing costs on parents heightens stress and undermines the stability that young people need to succeed.
The Kansas legislature is currently considering a bill that would move the state in the wrong direction. HB 2453 would authorize counties to assess a fee up to $100 on youth who are applying to participate in Kansas’ immediate intervention process — a diversion program that allows youth charged with certain misdemeanor offenses to avoid formal prosecution in the juvenile justice system. This provision risks harming youth and families, and undermining the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system.
In our Juvenile Law Center report, Debtors’ Prisons for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System, we surveyed lawyers for children, other professionals, youth, and families to learn about the consequences of these costs. Survey respondents reported that fines and fees cause families difficulty surviving day to day. One lawyer explained that families are often “teetering on the brink” financially when their children enter the system, and “the added costs push them further.” The lawyer further explained: “I have seen single moms, which describes many of these cases, have difficulty scraping together $10 to $15 out of their monthly budget.”
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These policies don’t just harm youth — they place stress on the whole family. Many families take on debt to pay court fees. Others face hard choices between basic necessities like groceries or school uniforms and the financial obligations imposed by courts. One of our survey respondents explained that the financial obligation “creates a rift between parents and their children.” Strong parental relationships are key to positive youth development, but the financial burdens of court fees can strain relationships between parents and children.
Juvenile fines and fees exacerbate an already pronounced economic divide. Because youth living in poverty are more likely to enter the juvenile justice system, while those with greater resources tend to access private supports and services instead, the costs place a financial burden on those least able to afford it.
Costs and fees can also make our communities less safe. Our study in Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice found that imposing fines, fees and restitution actually increased the likelihood of recidivism in a sample of more than 1,000 adolescent offenders, even after ruling out many other potential factors. Moreover, the higher costs imposed, the higher the recidivism rates.
Our study also directly links these costs to the pervasive racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. We found higher recidivism rates when youth still owe fines, fees, and restitution when their cases are closed, and that such outstanding costs were more common for youth of color.
Although HB 2453 is discretionary, permitting but not requiring counties to impose costs, it is still problematic. It would saddle youth with the difficult burden of proving inability to pay, rather than starting with the basic assumption we know to be true of youth, as a class: that they cannot generally pay court costs.
The tide is turning around the country to eliminate court costs and fees and to better balance the scales of justice and increase fairness. The Kansas legislature should reject the proposal to add a juvenile fee and should stay true to the state’s promises — set forth in the Kansas Juvenile Justice Code — to be outcome-based, to strengthen families, and to improve the ability of youth to live productively in their communities. After all, successful kids make successful adults — something we can all probably agree on.
Jessica Feierman is Associate Director of Juvenile Law Center. Alex R. Piquero is Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology and Associate Dean for Graduate Programs in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at The University of Texas at Dallas.