Each year approximately 800,000 young people appear in court. In the majority of cases, young people and their families are required to pay fines and fees for this system involvement. Because of structural racism and the over-policing of communities of color, these penalties disproportionately harm Black, Latinx, and Indigenous youth and families. Instead of providing support or meeting the goals of rehabilitation, these punitive measures put an unnecessary and added financial burden on the young people and families who are also most at risk of being unemployed/underemployed or living in poverty, which then pushes them further into the legal system when they are unable to pay.
Young people cannot afford to pay these fees. Some are legally too young to hold a job and most are enrolled full-time in school. Those who do seek employment typically find limited job opportunities and non-living wages. This reality then shifts the financial burden to family members who are often struggling themselves, causing economic strain and exacerbating tension in family relationships.
Inability to pay leads to serious harmful consequences. Unpaid court fees can allow for young people to remain on probation longer, face additional court visits, and sometimes, being placed in a youth correctional facility or removed from their home. Inability to pay can also prevent youth from expunging records or holding a drivers’ license and can lead to civil judgments levied against them. These cascading consequences, in turn, often create barriers to education and employment and impact credit scores, causing devastating long-term financial impact. In addition, many families go into debt to pay youth justice system fees or find themselves choosing between basic necessities like rent or food and these legal obligations.
Fines and fees also undermine public safety. Research has shown a link between fines and fees and recidivism, likely because fines and fees heighten family tensions and direct youth attention away from positive social and emotional learning opportunities.
Fines and fees also disproportionately impact poor communities and widen existing racial disparities. Young people with financial resources to pay are more likely to be diverted out of the justice system. Even among those better-resourced youths who remain in the justice system for further case processing, they are more likely to remain in their communities, receiving community-based services and treatment. Youth living in poverty are more likely to face separation from their families and incarceration. Moreover, because structural inequity and disparate treatment leads to more Black, Latinx and Indigenous youth in the justice system, the burden of these financial obligations falls disproportionately on families of color.
Many of us have witnessed firsthand how obligations to collect fines and fees can warp the relationship between our staff and youth and families, turning our staff, as one researcher put it, from “social workers” into “bill collectors.” It is vital for youth justice agencies to increase the justice system’s legitimacy by forming supportive bonds with youth and families, a process that charging and collecting fines and fees is antithetical to.
As current and former leaders of youth justice agencies around the country, we believe that the time has come to end the practice of charging fines and fees to young people and their families for youth justice system involvement. We oppose these punitive and ineffective practices that exacerbate racial and economic inequity and create barriers to opportunity for youth, families, and communities.
Fortunately, efforts to advance equity and pursue social and racial justice have already led to positive change. In the last six years, eight states have passed legislation eliminating fines, fees, or both from their youth justice codes; at least 11 others are now considering such legislation. And many more jurisdictions have instituted local change. But it is not enough.
Each state must protect its youngest and most vulnerable residents and their families from unnecessary burdens and harms, and offer them rehabilitation, hope, and the opportunity for growth and success. Abolishing fines and fees is consistent with this duty and is aligned with YCLJ’s core values, and we urge every jurisdiction across the country to do so.
Anne Marie Ambrose, Former Commissioner, Department of Human Services for the City of Philadelphia; Former Bureau Director of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Services for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Phyllis Becker, Former Director, Missouri Division of Youth Services
TJ Bohl, Court Administrator, Pierce County, WA
Susan Burke, Former Director, Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services
Joyce Burrell, Former Director, New York Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth
Gladys Carrión, Former Commissioner, New York City Administration for Children’s Services; Former Commissioner, New York State Office of Children and Family Services
Carey Cockerell, Former Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice; Former Commissioner Texas Department of Family and Protective Services; Former Director, Juvenile Services, Tarrant County, TX
Avik Das, Former Director and Chief Probation Officer, Cook County Juvenile Probation and Court Services
Tim Decker, Former Director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services and the Missouri Children's Division
Edward Dolan, Commissioner of Probation, Massachusetts Department of Probation / Former Commissioner, MA Juvenile Justice
Peter Edelman, Former Director of the New York State Division for Youth
Felipe Franco, Former Deputy Commissioner at City of New York, Administration for Children's Services
Fernando Giraldo¸ Chief Probation Officer, Santa Cruz County Probation Department
Simon G. Gonsoulin, Former Director, Louisiana Office of Youth Development
Mike Griffiths, Former Executive Director, Texas Juvenile Justice Department
Deborah Hodges, Former Director of the Lucas County Juvenile Court, Toledo, Ohio
Clinton Lacey, Former Director, Washington, DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services
Joe Leavey, Acting Director of Probation and Court Services, Juvenile Probation Department, Cook County, IL
Robert Listenbee, Former Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Scott MacDonald, Former Chief Probation Officer, Santa Cruz, CA
Mark Masterson, Former Director, Sedgwick County Department of Corrections
John B Mattingly, Former Commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children Services; Former Executive Director, The Camp Hill Project
Patrick McCarthy, Former Division Director, Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families
Terri McDonald, Former Chief Probation Officer, Los Angeles, CA
Mark Mertens, Administrator, Division of Youth and Family Services, Milwaukee County
David Muhammad, Former Chief Probation Officer, Alameda County, CA
Said Orra, Court Administrator, Lucas County Juvenile Court
Michael Rohan, Former Chief of the Cook County Juvenile Probation Department
Marc Schindler, Former Interim Director, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Washington, D.C.
Vincent Schiraldi, Former Director, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Washington, D.C.; Former Commissioner, New York City Department of Probation
Ira Schwartz, Former Administrator, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Mark Steward, Former Director, Missouri Division of Youth Services
Wendy Still, Chief Probation Officer, Alameda County, CA
Scott Taylor, Former Director Multnomah County Department of Community Justice
Jane E. Tewksbury, Former Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Youth Services
Cherie Townsend, Former Executive Director, Texas Juvenile Justice Department
Gina E. Wood, Former director of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice