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Virginia Juveniles: Sentenced to Debtors’ Prison?

A new report finds young offenders spend longer locked up because of court fines and fees. (Juvenile Law Center)
A new report finds young offenders spend longer locked up because of court fines and fees. (Juvenile Law Center)
September 21, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. - Young people in Virginia's juvenile-justice system often end up jailed longer because of their inability to pay fines and court fees, according to a new analysis by the Juvenile Law Center.

Its report, "Debtors' Prison for Kids," found that many young offenders stay locked up or on probation when they can't afford court fees and costs. Angela Ciolfi, legal director for the JustChildren program at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said jailing people for private debts was outlawed in the U.S. Constitution, but added that her nonprofit legal program sees many cases of kids in Virginia trapped in the system for just that kind of poverty.

"It's a basic principle of our justice system," she said. "People should not be punished for their poverty, and yet youth are being penalized for not being able to afford the financial penalties."

Ciolfi said some of their young clients struggle with restitution, or what the Department of Juvenile Justice charges them for their own support while they were locked up. The report said added court costs actually increase the chances of a young person re-offending, ultimately making communities less safe. In Virginia, Ciolfi said, her group has seen juveniles tried as adults who can struggle for the rest of their lives after entering the system at a very early age.

"At, say, age 14 - with thousands of dollars in court costs and fines - (they) come out many years later without the opportunity to earn enough to pay off those fines, and then cannot start with a fresh start," she said.

Since young people don't have the ability to work off debts the way adults do, she said, their families, who often already are struggling, end up on the hook.

"Often too young to work. They're too young to enter into contracts. They're required to be in school," she said, "and financial penalties that are imposed on youths are really imposed on their families."

Lawmakers often have imposed fees and costs as a way of increasing punishments and shifting the burden of paying for the justice system off of taxpayers. Ciolfi said that makes less sense in the cases of juveniles.

The full report is online at debtorsprison.jlc.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA