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Justice by Income: Fines, Fees Push MA Youth Into Custody

Experts say excessive juvenile justice fines and fees can prevent a young person from getting on the right track. (Chris Potter/Flckr)
Experts say excessive juvenile justice fines and fees can prevent a young person from getting on the right track. (Chris Potter/Flckr)
September 12, 2016

BOSTON – When a young person is unable to pay court related costs, he or she can face a type of debtors' prison, a practice a new report says can pull juveniles deeper into the justice system.

In Massachusetts, the court may order parents to pay a large number of fees, including daily fees for having a GPS, participating in court ordered programs or having an attorney appointed, even though the family is considered too poor to afford one.

Naoka Carey, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Juvenile Justice, says forcing young people into custody for these debts is not helpful to the main goal of rehabilitation for the youthful offender.

"Imposing these kinds of fees makes it harder for kids to get on the right track,” she states. “In Massachusetts, our juvenile courts start as young as age 7, so you're talking about an 8, 9 or 10-year-old having to pay a fine. There's no way they can get a job."

The report by the Juvenile Law Center recommends that states eliminate costs, fines and fees by establishing more sustainable and effective models for funding court systems.

While Massachusetts courts can have some discretion as to whether they impose some of the fees, and the Legislature eliminated daily juvenile probation fees in July, the report says fines and fees still are resulting in longer placement for Bay State youth and more debt for their families.

According to the Juvenile Law Center findings, when a family can't pay up, a young person can be placed in a secure facility or have his or her probation extended.

Jessica Feierman, the Center’s associate director, calls it a punishment for being poor.

"We're creating two separate systems of justice,” she states. “This is really a glaring example of justice by income.

“We really can do better.
We can set a system that's fair to all young people, not just the ones who have access to money."

Other penalties for nonpayment noted in the report include prevented expungement and additional court visits.

In Massachusetts some fees cannot be waived and state courts rely on them for a significant portion of their budget.

Mike Clifford, Public News Service - MA