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Justice by Income: Ohio Youth Facing Debtors' Prison

Experts say excessive juvenile justice court costs can detour a young person from getting on the right track. (Pixabay)
Experts say excessive juvenile justice court costs can detour a young person from getting on the right track. (Pixabay)
September 12, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio – 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 Ohio, these fees and fines include the cost of tests and evaluations, rehabilitation, probation and court operation.

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 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 maintains. “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."

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

The Ohio Sentencing Commission is drafting a bill to address justice system costs, fees and fines, which would include a hearing to determine a young person's ability to pay.

Erin Davies, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition in Ohio, says the consequences of these costs can increase recidivism and detour a young person from getting on the right track.

She says the report suggests restitution policies that consider rehabilitation, while addressing a victim's needs.

"What does that mean for that young person, their family, their credit, their ability to move on with their life while still being responsible to the person who they harmed?” she questions. “It's a very delicate balancing act that we have to be very careful to get right."

Feierman says excessive court costs put families in highly stressful situations where they face difficult choices.

"Should I pay for my one child's school uniform or my other child's court fees?” she asks. “Is it worth going into debt so that I can pay off these fees?

“That's a strain on a family that's not going to help either the child or the family. We're just deepening the cycle of poverty."

Other penalties for nonpayment noted in the report include prevented expungement, additional court visits, parents held in contempt and family debt.

Mary Kuhlman/Scott Herron, Public News Service - OH