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Money for Justice: SD Youth Facing Debtors' Prison

The financial costs of involvement in the juvenile-justice system can be overwhelming for youths and their families. (iStockphoto)
The financial costs of involvement in the juvenile-justice system can be overwhelming for youths and their families. (iStockphoto)
September 13, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. – When a young person is unable to pay court-related costs, he or she can face what's known as "debtors' prison," a practice a new report says can pull them deeper into the juvenile-justice system. In South Dakota, these fees and fines can include the cost of food, clothing, shelter, supervision and court operations. 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 their probation extended.

Associate director at the center Jessica Feierman called it a punishment for being poor.

"We're creating two separate systems of justice," she said. "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.

Feierman said 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? 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," she added.

The report also noted that South Dakota is one of 12 states that allows judges to impose court costs and fees on juveniles.

And research shows young people of color are more likely to have unpaid justice system costs than their white peers.

"We know there's a problem nationally with racial disparities in the juvenile-justice system," she said. "This gives us one very concrete policy change that we could make to try to turn that around."

The full report can be found here.

Brandon Campbell, Public News Service - SD