Debtors' Prison for Kids?

Jessica Feierman with Naomi Goldstein, Emily Haney-Caron, Jaymes Fairfax Columbo,
Three youth standing together, looking at the camera.

While much is now known about the financial burdens imposed on individuals and families by the assessment of costs, fines, fees, and restitution in the adult criminal justice system, there has been scant attention paid to this issue in the juvenile justice system. To address this gap, with the support of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Juvenile Law Center: reviewed statutes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to assess the legal framework for financial obligations placed on youth in the juvenile justice system and their families; conducted a national survey of lawyers, other professionals, adults with previous juvenile justice involvement, and families to collect information about local practices; interviewed attorneys and young adults who had experiences with the juvenile justice system to further understand how cost of justice issues play out in practice; and solicited a study by criminologists Alex Piquero and Wesley Jennings, who examined the connection between costs and recidivism, and the implications for racial disparities in the juvenile justice system

Our statutory research revealed significant consequences that we had not posed as survey questions, but which we believe are also widely imposed and require further study. These include:

  • Probation extended
  • Probation revoked
  • Driver’s license revoked, suspended, or child barred from applying for license
  • Arrest warrants issued
  • Child deprived of needed treatment
  • Youth or parents held in civil or criminal contempt Interest fees, collection fees, or other additional fees or fines for failure to pay

Debtors' Prison for Kids includes a companion microsite, featuring interactive maps based on the statutory research and survey data. While this report focuses on a problem—the imposition of costs on youth and families who cannot afford to pay—it also highlights solutions and identifies jurisdictions that are changing their local or state policies to ensure that the youth are not punished for poverty.