If a group of teenagers vandalize a downtown building and are charged with a crime, their ability to handle the court-ordered punishment may depend a lot on their family’s economic status. This two-tiered system of justice, in which the inability to pay fines and restitution can significantly lengthen a sentence to jail or probation, is wrong for adults and can be especially harmful to juvenile offenders.
Court-ordered fines and fees for court-ordered services such as counseling and monitoring disproportionately harm poor and minority families, a recent report by the Juvenile Law Center found. Even seemingly small costs can burden families that are barely getting by before their children commit a crime. They can prompt families to consider relinquishing custody of a child, and the financial obligations harm siblings when a family has to cut back on spending to pay court costs and fines. Higher-income families can more readily pay fines and for treatment outside the justice system.
“When an inability to pay deprives a young person of the opportunity to be diverted from the juvenile justice system … it intensifies economic inequalities in the system. Juvenile costs and fees lead to inherently unequal treatment for youth in poverty,” the Juvenile Law Center report said. “Costs, fines, fees and restitution also exacerbate racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.”
One problem is that judges have few options when it comes to child offenders. Typically, they sentence them to community service or paying a fine. Families usually choose to pay a fine because they believe it is less disruptive than getting their child to and from community service and court-ordered treatment.
As a result, youth offenders are fined for relatively minor offenses, such as being out past curfew and alcohol possession. It is not unusual for a juvenile to accumulate hundreds of dollars in fines, according to Chris Northrop, the director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland.
Restitution also is problematic. Although judges have discretion in how much money should be paid to the victims of crimes such as vandalism, Northrop says families are often too optimistic about the amount they can pay because they simply want to put the matter behind them. In other instances, prosecutors don’t share information with judges about a defendant’s financial situation.
It is not just about the money. When fines or restitution aren’t paid, the child remains enmeshed in the court system. The child and his or her parents or guardians have to return to court, often multiple times, to explain why they can’t pay. This means the child misses classes and school events that keep him or her connected to his or her peers. Parents have to take time off work, which for some means a smaller paycheck that week.
Northrop emphasizes that Maine’s juvenile justice laws regarding fees are better than most states’. Maine doesn’t detain children who don’t pay their fines or restitution, and it has no mandatory minimum fines for juveniles. The state doesn’t assess court costs on children or their families, nor does it make them pay for counseling or probation services. Many states do assess such costs, which further punishes low-income children and their families.
But, Northrop says, judges and prosecutors must be ever mindful that the goal of the juvenile justice system is to get children out of that system as quickly as possible so they can get back to school, band, sports and other activities that help them develop into educated, productive human beings. In addition, judges should consider suspending fines in favor of activities that are directly tied to improving the lives of youth offenders, such as requiring that they maintain good grades and attend in-school counseling.
We are fortunate that Maine is less punitive than other states, but there is room for improvement to ensure that justice for children emphasizes self-improvement over financial penalties.