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Report: NM Juvenile Offenders Trapped in “Debtor’s Prison”

A new report says fees and fines imposed in the juvenile-court system often become major setbacks to families who are already financially strapped. (Youth Justice Coalition)
A new report says fees and fines imposed in the juvenile-court system often become major setbacks to families who are already financially strapped. (Youth Justice Coalition)
September 14, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. - Fines and fees within the juvenile-justice system can be crushing for families, according to a new report.

According to the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center, young people who can't pay for alternative programs may do time when a wealthier offender may not. In some states, the report said, failure to pay court-related costs is a probation violation, and youths or their parents can be held in contempt or have driver's licenses suspended.

Report co-author Jessica Feierman, the center's associate director, said counties should consider lowering their fees.

"Across the country, there's no state that we think is in great shape," she said. "They're all charging fees, and we're hearing problems from around the country of kids being unable to pay and being pushed deeper into the juvenile-justice system."

The report, called "Debtors' Prison for Kids," examined the policies of each state, and noted that in New Mexico, it is mandatory for parents to pay up if their children's sentences include restitution.

Judges have some discretion in determining whether and how much young people or their parents will pay for court-related costs. State Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Dona Ana, who also heads the children's advocacy group Mesilla Valley Casa, said that in her experience, local judges are good about taking financial need into account. For the most part, however, only wealthy parents can afford a private diversion program. She said lower-income kids have limited access because the state pays for very few beds at these facilities.

"Sometimes kids need to be in a residential treatment facility," she said. "They may need psychiatric services and, right now, especially in New Mexico, we are lacking all of the above."

Social worker Jeannette Martinez, an expert in restorative justice at the company Circle of Justice LLC in Albuquerque, said low-income kids certainly are at a disadvantage.

"They are definitely at-risk kids when their families who don't have the resources to provide help to their own kids, much less be able to pay the system, or victim, for damages," she said. "It's unfortunate but it's true, and I think people are closing their eyes to what the reality is."

The report is online at debtorsprison.jlc.org.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - NM