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Juvenile Justice System Promises Rehabilitation, Delivers Crippling Debt to California Youth

The effects of our justice system extend beyond the walls of prison, jail or juvenile hall. Justice involvement erects numerous lifelong barriers to housing, education, employment and financial stability. One such barrier is the imposition of fines and fees, which needlessly burden reentry and harm already vulnerable families.

These financial penalties, though onerous for adults, are particularly problematic when levied against young people. This month, members of the California State Assembly are considering groundbreaking legislation that would eliminate juvenile administrative fees statewide.

Juvenile justice fees, which can total hundreds or thousands of dollars, profoundly impact the stability of a family, straining relationships and preventing crucial investment in education, medical care or treatment services. For low-income families in particular, fees draw scarce resources away from basic needs, exacerbating poverty and inviting crisis.

Given the ways in which fines and fees can disrupt family life and impose economic strain, it is unsurprising that the burden of juvenile justice debt increases a young person’s chances of reentering the system. A recent study found that repayment rates for fines and fees were low, but that their very assessment increased a young person’s likelihood of being convicted of a new offense in either juvenile or adult court within two years. The authors of the study also discovered stark racial disparities in the accumulation of fee debt, with youth of color significantly more likely to face unpaid debt at case closing than white youth.

The authority granted to courts and local agencies to impose such fees varies across the United States, but every state permits the collection of some kind of payment for a young person’s involvement in the juvenile justice system. A recent nationwide review of the various fines and fees resulting from juvenile justice system contact found that 20 states allow youth to be billed for the cost of probation or other supervision, while 47 states can charge for the “cost of care,” which includes food, clothing, programming or medical costs incurred while a young person was in custody.

Though some jurisdictions consider a family’s ability to pay before imposing such fees, these tests can be flawed or improperly administered. Such errors present low-income families with an impossible choice: providing for their children or repaying the debt. A failure to pay can be devastating, with consequences that can include driver’s license revocation, incarceration, compounding fines, wage garnishment or eviction.

In California, state law permits counties to bill a young person’s family for the cost of their justice system involvement, including their legal representation, juvenile hall detention, electronic monitoring, probation supervision and drug testing. Currently, nine in 10 California counties charge these fees. But that could change with the passage of Senate Bill 190, which will end the assessment of juvenile administrative fees statewide. State sens. Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara introduced the bill in recognition of the ways juvenile administrative fees punish vulnerable families, exacerbate the harms of systems involvement and undermine the rehabilitative intent of the juvenile justice system. It has received broad bipartisan support at every legislative hurdle and is fast approaching a consequential vote in the State Assembly.

SB 190 builds on the success of local reform efforts throughout the state. In Alameda County, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, researchers discovered that the annual cost of assessing and collecting juvenile administrative fees cost the county more than 60 percent of the revenue ultimately generated from them. Furthermore, Alameda County was charging probation-supervised African-American youth an average of $3,438, compared to $1,637 for white youth.

These findings, paired with a coordinated campaign led by community groups, compelled the county to end the assessment and collection of these fees in 2016. Alameda now joins Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Francisco and other California counties in limiting the imposition of harmful juvenile fees.

Juvenile justice is premised on rehabilitation, but fines and fees undermine this goal by making it harder for young people to access the treatment and support they need to thrive. We know what works in juvenile justice: reducing the barriers to successful reintegration. California and states across the U.S. must abolish punitive fines and fees and recommit to the principle of second chances.

Maureen Washburn is a member of the Policy and Communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Court Costs Can Push Kids Deeper Into Justice System, Report Says

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Fines and fees imposed in juvenile court can drive youth deeper into the system and their families deeper into poverty, a new report says.

Every state imposes monetary penalties or costs on juveniles, a burden that hits families who are already struggling especially hard, both emotionally and financially, according to the report by the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia.

The costs can include fees to attend programs that are alternatives to incarceration or to have a mental health evaluation, charges for record expungement and restitution payments to victims.

When families can’t pay, the consequences may include sending a youth to a juvenile placement rather than an alternative community-based program, keeping a youth on probation longer than they otherwise would be or having their driver’s license revoked.

“This is a glaring example of justice by income,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director at the center and the report’s lead author.

The financial burdens of adult court have drawn increasing attention in recent years, but the juvenile system has gone largely unexamined, prompting the center’s researchers to wonder about the experiences of young people and their families. For the report, they examined state statutes and surveyed families and practitioners in most states.

“We got a resounding answer that young people all across the country are facing court debt. It’s harming them and their families,” Feierman said.

In a companion report, criminologists also zeroed in on how costs or fees affected recidivism in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

The study, one of the first to look at the connection, found that financial penalties increased recidivism instead of deterring further offenses.

In addition, the report found a link between court-ordered financial obligations and racial disparities. Youth of color were more likely to still owe money after their cases were over, leading to further charges, longer probation or other punishments.

Feierman said the findings point to one way to curb racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system — by moving away from fines and fees that disproportionately affect some communities.

State experiences

Gary Blume, a partner at Blume & Blume Law in Alabama, said he often sees families struggling with the financial problems the report highlights. One common scenario is that a juvenile on probation is hit with a fee that they can’t pay and has to remain on probation until they can.

During that time, they can be sucked further into the system because of curfew violations or other technical violations — which often comes with a new round of costs.

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“It just creates a vicious cycle,” he said.

The consequences also aren’t uniform, Blume added. While some judges are mindful of the burdens families face, others are less so. And even when judges would like to waive fees or fines, some costs are mandatory.

Feierman said some of the fines and fees are set up as a punishment or a way to right a wrong, such as restitution payments. Others are a funding mechanism, a way to fill gaps in juvenile justice budgets that have been slashed.

All of them can be overwhelming to a family, even in small amounts, said lawyers and advocates across the country. And there are hidden costs, too.

A family may need to find the money for a class that’s an alternative to formal prosecution, but they’ll also need to come up with the money for transportation, said Mae C. Quinn, director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis.

“The cost of just doing business needs to be taken into account as well,” she said.

One fee that differs somewhat from the others are restitution payments that go directly to victims, Feierman said. Helping to make a victim whole may make sense, but even then, states should be aware of how much money juveniles and their families have and whether alternatives such as community service may be more fruitful.

“If a young person doesn’t have the money, it’s not going to help the victim and it’s not going to help the young person get back on track,” she said.

Financial obligations vary

The report looks at eight categories of financial obligations that states use: probation or supervision, informal adjustment or diversion, evaluation and testing, cost of care, court costs and fees, fines, expungement and sealing, and restitution.

All states impose restitution costs of some kind, but they vary in their use of costs across the other categories. Under state law, New York only uses restitution fees; Alaska and Vermont use restitution and cost of care fees. Others though, including Texas, Arkansas, Oregon, Kansas and Michigan, have fees or fines that fall into seven of the categories.

Most states and localities haven’t made any major moves to change their practices, but some examples exist, according to the report. In Alameda County, California, officials put a moratorium on fees and costs after a report showed the harm to families and a minimal financial benefit to the county.  And Washington state lawmakers eliminated a variety of fees, allowed youth to petition the court for relief and gave judges discretion to consider a juvenile’s ability to pay restitution.

“Counties and states across the country should consider a similar approach — eliminating harmful costs, fines, and fees, and ensuring that any orders of restitution are reasonable and effectively balance the victim’s need to be made whole with the financial reality of youth and their families,” the report said.

Matt Conklin, a juvenile justice reform advocate at Kansas Appleseed, said he was struck by how many fines and fees Kansas applies. The group will be encouraging families to tell their stories and sharing the information with legislators to encourage reforms, he said.

“This is the signal for us, the wake-up call that can hopefully inspire us,” he said.

This story has been updated.

New Online Service Allows College Students to Compare Financial Aid Data Across Country

This week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) launched a beta version of the Financial Aid Comparison Shopper, an online service designed to help prospective and current college students make financial plans for their post-secondary schooling.

The new service allows users to access financial aid information as it pertains to more than 7,500 colleges and universities across the United States. Using data collected by official government statistical agencies, the Financial Aid Comparison Shopper evaluates a wide range of financial information, from estimated student loan payment totals to college-specific data such as graduation and retention rates, as well as federal student loan default percentages. Additionally, the new service includes a “Military Benefit Calculator” that allows service members and veterans to estimate military tuition assistance and GI Bill aid.

Last fall, the CFPB launched the “Know Before You Owe” student loan project, unveiling a Financial Aid Shopping Sheet draft that served as a precursor to the Financial Aid Comparison Shopper service. Earlier this year, the organization also launched a service for students with complaints pertaining to private school loans.

According to the CFPB, outstanding student loan debt has eclipsed credit card debt totals in the United States, becoming the second leading source of household debt in the country outside of mortgages.

"Student loan debt has crossed the $1 trillion mark and tuition continues to climb," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a recent press release.

"Now more than ever, students and their families need to know before they owe,” Cordray continued. “Our Financial Aid Comparison Shopper helps students make apples to apples comparisons of their offers and pick the one that works best for their financial future."

Student Advocates Raise Concerns over Pending Student Loan Interest Rate Increase

Past due student loan balance by age. Q3, 2011. Student advocates worry that a pending interest rate increase on federally-administered student loans will further burden borrowers, potentially adding thousands of dollars to the cost of financing a college degree. Student loan interest rates are set to increase from the current rate of 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent for loans made after June 30.

Rates have been at an artificially low 3.4 percent since Congress pasted the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, a plan to improve educational access by incrementally reducing rates over a four-year period. The rates will jump back to 6.8 percent July 1 if Congress fails to extend the bill, the New York Times reported.

Students rallied at the nation’s Capitol last week to protest the increase in subsidized loans, generally made to low- and medium- income undergraduate students through the federal Stafford program, the Associated Press reported.

To add to concerns, a recent study released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed 27 percent of the 37 million student loan borrowers in the United States had past-due balances of 30 days or more. Of borrowers under the age of 30, roughly 40 percent had outstanding loans, with an average debt of slightly more than $23,000.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FInaid.org, told New York Times in an e-mail that the rate increase was actually “the lesser of two evils,” citing cuts to the federal Pell Grant program. The government actually looses money offering interest rates of 3.4 percent, he said.

Even if the interest rate is increased, it’s unclear whether or not additional funding would be made available for the Pell Grant program.

 

Students Hopeful New College Loan Program Will Take the Pressure Off

Beginning in January, students who borrow to pay for college will keep more of their paycheck when it comes time to pay the loans back. Last Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced a plan that would cap monthly payments on federal student loans to 10 percent of the borrower’s discretionary income.

The change comes after a petition on the White House website asking for student loan forgiveness received 32,000 signatures. Although the focus of the plan is not on debt relief, the new proposal would forgive student loan debt after 20 years of payments.

The program is a modification of an earlier proposal approved by Congress that would have taken effect in 2014 and capped monthly payments at 15 percent of a student’s income. That proposal would have forgiven debt after 25 years. Obama accelerated the effective date of the program through executive order.

With unemployment rates still high across the country, students welcome the news.

“I’m definitely worried about paying back my loans,” said Zach Logan, 19, a freshman at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Logan said he borrowed $500 to help pay for his first semester of college and plans to borrow similar amounts in the future.

“I like the plan,” Logan said. “It sounds like it takes the pressure and stress off students.”

Zach Logan

Senior English major Megan Roberts, also of KSU, has so far avoided taking out student loans thanks to the HOPE Scholarship program in Georgia, which pays tuition at state schools for Georgia students with at least a 3.0 GPA. But Roberts’ scholarship will run out before she graduates, she said. Now she is contemplating taking out loans for her last semester and for graduate school.

“It’s a major concern,” she said. Taking out loans is “a reality” for a lot of students but “it’s a little scary.”

According to Rich Williams, Higher Education Advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and the Student PIRG’s Higher Education Project, two-thirds of students graduate with college loan debt.

“We are delighted the president is using his executive authority to provide relief to students,” he said. “It’s a small step in the right direction but a larger change is needed to come from Congress.”

Williams said the different types of loans available confuse many students. The new program will help students to track loans and allows borrowers to consolidate loans for lower monthly payments and discounted interest rates. The program is “a little public education and a little debt relief,” he said.

“The president is creating a special opportunity for students,” he said.

Not everyone is happy with the plan, however, including Republican presidential hopefuls.

“I believe it is abuse of power from the executive to impose via an executive order a wholesale change in the student loan,” Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota Congresswoman and Republican presidential candidate, said at The Future of American Education: A Presidential Primary Candidate Forum sponsored by the College Board and News Corp.

Newt Gingrich, also running for the GOP presidential nomination, called the program a “Ponzi scheme.”

According to Gingrich, speaking at the same education forum, the president will bankrupt “the entire country by promising to every young person you will not have to pay your student loan as a student. However you will later have to pay off the national debt as a taxpayer."

Photos by Ryan Schill / JJIE.org