Juvenile Law Center

Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Cost of Justice

Across the country, young people and their families are held responsible for court costs, fines, and restitution. These costs can soar into the tens of thousands of dollars, despite the fact that few teenagers have sufficient financial resources to make such payments. Ironically, such laws are applied even to young people who cannot legally sign contracts or get a full-time job.  Teenagers can be confined in juvenile facilities or adult jails because they cannot pay these costs, and in some states justice-related debts can follow youth into adulthood or prevent youth from sealing or expunging their juvenile records.  Costs, fines, and fees also cause financial and emotional strain for families in poverty. 

These punitive policies and practices worsen existing racial and economic disparities in the justice system, where poor youth and youth of color are incarcerated at substantially higher rates than their wealthier, white peers.   High costs and fees also increases recidivism. 

Despite recent news coverage on the criminalization of poverty, comprehensive research has not been conducted on the impact of the cost of justice on youth and their families. With support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Juvenile Law Center has published a report, Debtors’ Prison for Kids, the High Cost of Juvenile Fines and Fees, based on research on state laws from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as interviews with children’s lawyers across the country.  This ongoing work fills crucial gaps in data and advocacy strategies to promote economic justice for youth penalized for their inability to pay for court-related costs.

Visit www.jlc.org/DebtorsPrisonforKids to learn more about the issue, view interactive state maps, and learn about the laws in your state. 

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