“His mother works at Giant Food Store and his stepfather works at USPS. He can pay the court costs.” Those were the words I heard a Maryland judge utter as she imposed juvenile court fines and fees on the young black man standing before her. There was no inquiry into his family’s expenses—rent, bills, or other financial obligations. The judge’s “attempt” to determine whether the child’s family could pay was a mere observation and not a true “ability to pay” hearing. The process illogically imposes costs on a child—who on their own cannot afford them—but then, takes less than one minute to discuss where a parent works to justify the penalty.
Scenes like this play out every day in courts across the U.S. A judge imposes fines and fees on youth of color and their family, citing characteristics most would consider strengths. A two-parent household, a broad supportive network, and a young person’s employment can all be cited as reasons why a child should pay. And although each jurisdiction’s costs fluctuate and some jurisdictions do not keep track of the data well, in 2017, California’s Alameda County imposed, on average, $2,000 on youth and their families (pdf), which is equal to two months’ salary for a single parent earning federal minimum wage.
In addition to the financial burden, this type of assessment can be uniquely damaging to nontraditional families and networks of support for young people because friends or neighbors can also be held accountable for these charges, not just legal guardians. Ironically, the absence of these supports can be used against a youth to place them in detention.
Traditional Anglo-American notions of family revolve around “nuclear families,” i.e. father, mother, child/siblings. However, for many communities of color, the neat nuclear family definition doesn’t fit. In fact, across cultures, the term “family” often means more than blood lineage. But instead of our juvenile justice system recognizing the importance of these family bonds, it undermines them.
As a child growing up in Central Pennsylvania, the uniqueness of my family was readily apparent. My father, a Black man from the South, met my mother, a Nuyorican by way of Ponce, Puerto Rico, when he was one of her patients at the Brooklyn Veteran’s Hospital. The two quickly fell in love, and a new blended family was born. My immediate family consists of three siblings—technically “half” siblings (we never used the term). As my grandmother aged, she moved in. I have a list of cousins and “cousins” who are legally not related to me but have been so intertwined with my family that to call them anything else would be disingenuous.
Blended and nontraditional families are commonplace for non-white communities, and these broad definitions of family provide vital supports for young people. But fines and fees from the juvenile justice system threaten these important resources. In Alabama, I interviewed a woman who appeared for a court hearing on behalf of a teenage neighbor. The mother of the young person, knowing she could not call off from work, asked the neighbor if she would attend court in her absence. The mother, child, and neighbor should all be applauded for their resourcefulness. The mother was responsible in maintaining her employment while providing support for her child in the form of her neighbor. The neighbor, by attending the court hearing, showed additional love and support for a child going through a difficult circumstance.
At the hearing, however, the neighbor—no blood-relation to the youth—signed paperwork making her legally liable should the young person not pay the costs and fees assessed that day. Similarly, we have heard from more than one grandparent considering giving up legal custody of a child to avoid the overwhelming fees imposed by the justice system.
Youth of color are more likely to be involved in the system and therefore are at higher risk of facing fines and fees. This is especially alarming, given that minority wealth historically lags behind white wealth in the United States. Instead of rewarding communities of color for having broad networks of support, the system abuses the “it takes a village” mentality and turns needed support into a disadvantage by making more people vulnerable to the collection apparatus of the system.
All 50 states have provisions that allow for the imposition and collection of juvenile fines and fees. Equally disturbing is the fact that 47 states have specific laws that allow for the assessment of “cost of care” fees which can include daily charges for detaining a youth stripped from their family. Youth and families who cannot pay these costs face devastating consequences including removal from the home, longer stays in detention, civil judgment orders, family debt, and barriers to expungement.
A supportive family has long been credited as beneficial to adolescent development. Strong family ties have been acknowledged to help decrease recidivism amongst youth. Instead of embracing family, however, the juvenile justice system creates liabilities that may push these supports away.
And in the face of all this research, nontraditional families get the worst of both worlds. On one end, they may not have visitation rights to non-related youth. Someone who is a family figure emotionally is viewed as a stranger at a juvenile detention center. Yet, as happened in an Alabama courtroom, the system will hold a non-related family member accountable for a youth’s fines and fees if the adult attends a court hearing in support of the child and gets caught up in the court’s assessment of fees and cursory determination of how they will be collected.
This is why the Juvenile Law Center, in collaboration with the Berkeley Policy and Advocacy Clinic, has been working to eliminate juvenile system fines and fees around the country. Jurisdictions are beginning to make much-needed changes. California and Nevada passed legislation ending almost all administrative costs, as well as many other fines and fees in the juvenile justice system. Philadelphia and Dane County, Wisconsin, 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. Federally, Congressman Tony Cárdenas introduced the Ending Debtor’s Prison for Kids Act, a bill that would provide incentives for states to eliminate the practice of imposing and collecting juvenile fines and fees which is co-sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Donald Payne Jr., Rashida Tlaib, and several others in the House.
Given that children lack financial means or independence, it is absurd to expect them to pay these costs that essentially become a perpetual debt burden. But the answer is not to create further liability that punishes those who step in to care for a child. That doesn’t solve the problem—instead, it runs the risk of tearing families, and communities apart.
Joshua Branch is a critical race theorist whose legal career has focused on the intersection of juvenile justice and education. He is a Zubrow Fellow at Juvenile Law Center. He is focused on dismantling systemic oppression wherever it exists.