Legislators Call for End of Juvenile 'Debtor's Prisons'

A Congressman from California has proposed a bill that would end the practice of collecting fines and fees from families whose children are in detention centers. Democratic Representative Tony Cárdenas introduced the Ending Debtor’s Prison for Kids Act on Friday, April 12, which will end the practice of billing families for administrative fees incurred by children who are involved in the juvenile justice system.

“Right now, across this country, young people are being held in detention centers not for crimes they committed at home or in school, but because they can’t afford the legal fees of our justice system,” Cárdenas said in a statement.

A 2016 report from the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) about debtor's prison for kids found that one million youth who appear in juvenile court each year have to pay juvenile justice fees, costs, fines, or restitution. Those minors who cannot afford to pay could face extended or revoked probation, or even incarceration, according to the report. The families of those youth can go into serious debt as a result. Some must choose between affording necessities and paying their child’s debt, the JLC report found.

“Court expenses, treatment fees, the cost of probation — in some places in America parents are even required to pay the government child support while their children are detained. And if a young person’s working poor parents can’t keep up with the legal charges, their child stays in jail,” Cárdenas said in the news release. “So the burden falls on the children — who belong in school, not in prison. We are creating a vicious cycle that fails not only these young people but the entire community as well.”

The law center stated that the bill could designate “funds for rehabilitation services for youth in the justice system to be available to states that eliminate the practice,” in a release following the introduction of the act on Friday. Jessica Feierman, JLC’s senior managing director and co-author of the report about debtors' prison for kids, thanked Cárdenas for addressing the issue. “Across the country, youth are pushed deeper into the justice system and families are pushed into poverty just because they can’t afford justice system fines and fees. By incentivizing states to end these harmful practices, the legislation will create better and more equitable outcomes for youth, families, and communities,” said Feierman. Cárdenas encouraged members of Congress from both parties to join him in support of the act.

“These American children need champions,” Cárdenas said in the statement. “Today, during Second Chance Month, I will begin my fight to end this cruel practice and make certain all children have a second chance at a better life. I call on my colleagues in both parties to join me.”

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to consider whether the criminal justice system should stop charging some penalties, fines, and fees, KNBC reported. Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl co-sponsored a motion requesting a study of the impact of criminal justice system charges, stating that the fees can disproportionately affect people of color and can cause people to go into debt.

"The purpose of our justice system is for people to pay their dues... not to continually punish those who have already paid their debt to society," Solis told the news station.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.