The juvenile justice system imposes numerous fines and fees on youth and their families. These fines and fees are widespread across the country; nearly every state imposes costs on children who are too young to work, too young to sign contracts, and too young to drop out of school.
For example, youth prisons often send parents “child support” bills for the cost of incarcerating their children; local juvenile courts charge youth administrative costs when they appear in court; and judges impose fines or restitution orders on young people regardless of whether they have any financial capacity to meet those obligations. Many children in juvenile court are even charged a fee for a public defender.
Approximately 750,000 cases involving youth are heard in juvenile courts every year. The juvenile justice system’s purpose is to hold youth accountable in developmentally appropriate ways. Fines and fees do the opposite. They heighten economic instability for families already in financial distress and make communities less safe.
Income-based Justice Isn’t Justice At All
Like cash bail and other criminal court charges imposed on adults, juvenile fines and fees re-create racial and economic inequities. They unfairly push youth of color and youth in poverty deeper into the juvenile justice system. Youth who can’t afford to pay these costs are more likely to be incarcerated, face prolonged prison time, and remain on probation longer, while youth with financial resources are more likely to stay at home and access effective community-based services and treatment. Youth shouldn’t be punished for poverty — income-based justice isn't justice at all.
The juvenile justice system is supposed to rehabilitate, and yet we know that fines and fees actually increase recidivism. Research shows young people with justice-related debts are more likely to re-offend than their debt-free peers, and the likelihood of re-offending increases as the fines and fees raise. This makes communities less safe.
It is absurd to think children can pay these charges. Children lack financial means or independence. Nor is it appropriate to base a child’s financial ability to pay on their parent’s income or economic status, when the child’s actions are in question. Parents across the country are forced to choose between paying for necessities, like groceries, and paying juvenile court fees. Fines and fees undermine family relationships, cause stress and tension within families, and expose youth and their parents to greater financial jeopardy.
We Fight For Alternatives That Work
Juvenile Law Center works to end the unfair practice of imposing juvenile fines and fees. We have seen alternatives work, and we are fighting for fairer, more effective policies and practices.
Cities, counties and states are realizing that juvenile fines and fees are an ineffective revenue source — the administrative cost of collecting juvenile fines and fees often exceeds the revenue they generate.
Across the country, jurisdictions are making much-needed reforms. Five states have passed legislation that ends almost all administrative costs, as well as other fines and fees. Philadelphia ended the practice of charging families child support for the cost of a child’s incarceration. Washington passed legislation to eliminate some juvenile justice fines and fees, as did Utah.
Through litigation and policy advocacy, we are pushing for reforms around the country.
Debtors' Prison for Kids?
Every state charges juvenile justice costs, fees, fines, or restitution. 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 and pulled deeper into the justice system. Costs, fines, and fees in the juvenile justice system harm youth and their families. They also undermine public safety and contribute to racial disparities in the justice system.