The Injustice of Court Costs on the Poor, Part 2

We reproduce in its entirety an article in the editorial section of today’s New York Times since it is a follow-up of a previous article we blogged about a young black man, Dequan Jackson, who at thirteen, for rough-housing in his school corridor, was placed on probation for over a year because he couldn’t pay his fines (see September 1 posting). The victimization of poor people in this country over the money they don’t have has to cease.

05mon3web-master768Dequan Jackson

It takes a lot these days to surprise anyone with the irrationalities of the American criminal justice system, rife as it is with harsh and counterproductive practices that do little or nothing to improve lives or keep the public safe.

But a new report, published by the Juvenile Law Center, shocks nonetheless. It illustrates the destructive results of charging court fees and fines to juveniles, many of whom come from impoverished families.

Courts impose costs on defendants in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to cover all sorts of expenses — day-to-day courtroom operations, drug and mental-health tests, even public defenders, who exist solely to represent people who can’t afford a lawyer. These charges, which mount quickly, are disruptive enough for lower-income adults who are trying to get their lives back on track. They can be an even heavier burden on juveniles, one million of whom find themselves in court each year.

When these young people or their families fail to pay, they may end up behind bars, be forced to return to court over and over again, or have their driver’s licenses suspended, making it harder for them to go to school or work. Families that are already struggling to get by may have to decide between paying the courts or buying food and clothing.

Absurdly, 11 states even charge to expunge a juvenile record, which is a major obstacle to a young person’s ability to get into college, land a job or find a place to live.

In general, the report found, these burdens — many ostensibly aimed at deterring crime — have the opposite effect: By saddling young people with piles of debt they cannot pay, they increase the likelihood that juveniles will wind up in trouble with the law again. And like so much else about the criminal justice system, these costs fall most heavily on poor and nonwhite juveniles.

As one of the report’s authors put it, “Asking people to pay what they don’t have doesn’t help anyone.”

A recent study in Alameda County, Calif., found that juveniles in its justice system were charged, on average, about $2,000, or two months’ salary for a single parent earning the federal minimum wage. Yet after the county paid the costs associated with collecting those fees, it netted almost no revenue.

To their credit, Alameda County officials saw the folly of a system that harmed a lot of people and produced no discernible public benefit. Last March, the county Board of Supervisors put an immediate moratorium on all administrative court fees in juvenile cases. Counties across the country would be wise to follow suit.


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