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Spiral of Instability: The Impact of Juvenile Court Costs on Iowa Families

Experts say excessive juvenile-justice court costs increase recidivism and detour a young person from getting on the right track. (Pixabay)
Experts say excessive juvenile-justice court costs increase recidivism and detour a young person from getting on the right track. (Pixabay)
September 14, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa - It's not just the consequences of their own actions that young people must face when involved in the juvenile-justice system. New research finds these youths in Iowa and other states can be pulled deeper into the system because of excessive court-related costs.

According to the Juvenile Law Center findings, in Iowa these fees and fines include the cost of tests and evaluations, placement in diversion programs, the services of a public defender and court operation. Alex Kornya, assistant litigation director for Iowa Legal Aid, said excessive costs from juvenile cases add stress to families who already are going through a period of uncertainty.

"As soon as that case is resolved and the family is ready to move on, then they're slapped with tens of thousands of dollars in some circumstances," he said. "The highest I've seen is $40,000, and it threatens to send the family back down the spiral of instability."

Kornya said the consequences of these costs can increase recidivism and detour a young person from getting on the right track. The report recommended that states eliminate costs, fines and fees on youths by establishing more sustainable and effective models for funding court systems. Kornya said there also are consequences for failure to pay back costs of other juvenile actions, including cases of a child removed from custody or parental-right termination. He said juvenile cases tend to generate quite high levels of cost.

"They're very protracted in nature," he said. "Sometimes they can take years to resolve and unlike even a criminal case which can generate quite a lot of costs. The juvenile cases generally are the most expensive."

Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, said these are costs many families simply cannot afford, especially those living in poverty.

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

Outstanding court debt in Iowa can affect expungement of charges and a person's ability to obtain a driver's license, and result in bad credit or wage garnishment. In some circumstances, a parent can be incarcerated for failure to pay a child's court costs.

The report is online at debtorsprison.jlc.org.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IA