'Drowning' from fines: Juveniles also deserve high court protections from justice system fees

Last week's Supreme Court decision saves adults from excessive fines. But youth also hit hard by system; and kids of color disproportionately suffer.

The Supreme Court unanimously held last week that the constitutional right to be free of excessive fines applies to the states. While the case addressed fees, fines and civil asset forfeiture among adults, it also has significant implications for youth in the juvenile justice system. 

Across the country, youth — particularly black and brown youth — are doubly punished with court and justice related fines and fees in addition to involvement in the juvenile justice system. Youth and families who cannot pay the fees face extended probation, denial of services and sometimes even incarceration. Familiesgo into debt or may have to choose between paying court fees or paying for groceries.

It’s time to eliminate juvenile fines and fees, and the court's ruling gives us a new opportunity to challenge their constitutionality.

Fines as revenue  

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her decision, the problem can be particularly severe because states may impose fines not just for punishment but also as a “source of revenue.”

One young person likened the experience of facing fines to "drowning" while people just keep "pouring more water in the pool." A civil rights attorney shared that as a teenager, he sold drugs just to pay off his juvenile justice fees. A grandmother said she was urged to give up custody of her grandchild to free herself of the economic burden of his court debt. 

In 2015, when the Department of Justice examined fines and fees in the adult criminal justice system in Ferguson, Missouri, they quickly realized that bias was at play. In fact, fines and fees contribute to a devastating system of racial and social control.

Michelle Alexander, a civil rights author, has laid the problem bare: If you’re poor and black, selling CDs or loose cigarettes can lead to fines, an arrest or even death, while the wealthy can bankrupt millions without even a slap on the wrist.

Children of color more at risk

That the problem starts in childhood makes it even more troubling. Black and brown youth are more likely to attend  highly policed schools than their white peers. Ironically, this may make schools less safe and learning more difficult. It not only pulls resources from educators and counselors, but also leads to greater arrest rates. 

Once in juvenile court, black and brown youth are  more likely than their white peers to be adjudicated delinquent, placed outside the home, and transferred to  adult court for the same behavior. 

As a result, not only are children of color at a heightened risk of family separation and incarceration, but their families also pay more in fees, including court fees, public defender fees, probation fees, placement costs and other financial obligations associated with the justice system. Youth and their families are being doubly punished and doubly taxed. And the problem doesn’t stop there. Unpaid fees can also lead to increased or repeated contact with the justice system, exacerbating the disparities further. 

The tie between fines, the justice system and racial oppression isn’t a new one. In fact, Ginsburg recognized the history of fines in racial discrimination and state-enforced white supremacy. “Following the Civil War,” she explained, “Southern states enacted Black Codes to subjugate newly freed slaves and maintain the prewar racial hierarchy. Among these laws’ provisions were draconian fines for violating broad proscriptions on 'vagrancy' and other dubious offenses. ... When newly freed slaves were unable to pay imposed fines, states often demanded involuntary labor instead.” 

The juvenile justice system has a similarly problematic history. It is portrayed as rehabilitative, but it has been used decade after decade to disproportionately police, control and punish black and brown youth by locking them up for normative adolescent behavior and then sending their families the bill. 

The country should follow the lead of jurisdictions that have recently passed much needed policy reforms. In 2015, Washington state passed the YEAR Act that eliminated numerous juvenile fees, and California followed in 2017 with a bill that even more comprehensively eliminated juvenile fines and fees. 

Our children deserve access to a system that treats them fairly regardless of the color of their skin or the wealth of their families.

Jessica Feierman is the senior managing director of the Juvenile Law Center. Clarise McCants is the campaign director of criminal justice for Color of Change.

Source : https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/policing/2019/03/01/justice-system-children-of-color-juvenile-detention-policing-the-usa/2984929002/

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