New Jersey just eliminated fines for youth in the juvenile system. And that’s a good thing. | Opinion

Posted Jan 22, 2020

By Katrina L. Goodjoint

We have seen families in New Jersey taking on debt because of mounting court fees, and we have heard of others considering criminal activities because they lack the money or the job opportunities that would allow them to pay their fees, Katrina Goodjoint says. The historic passage of Senate Bill 48 represents a new chapter in New Jersey’s criminal justice reform as it eliminates fines as a penalty for youth in the juvenile justice system.

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Recently, I spoke with a New Jersey resident who at age 38 still has outstanding juvenile fines from when he was young as 14. Out of desperation, he has asked the court if he can serve jail time in exchange for debt forgiveness. The court has repeatedly denied this request. Without his consent, his state tax refunds have been taken from him two years in a row and put towards this debt leaving him with less money to pay bills and support his loved ones. Unfortunately, this is not a unique story; but thankfully, the state has just passed historic legislation that will end these punitive fines for youth going forward.

Juvenile courts across the country — originally created to rehabilitate youth — regularly impose significant fines on youth. At Juvenile Law Center, we have been advocating against these punitive sanctions on young people, whom we believe should be presumed unable to pay any fines.

Until this bill’s passage, New Jersey had some of the most punitive fines in the country. We have seen families in New Jersey taking on debt because of mounting court fees, and we have heard of others considering criminal activities like drug sales because they lack the money or the job opportunities that would allow them to pay their fees. Unpaid debt can cause youth to incur extended probation, placement in a facility, civil judgment on their record, an inability to expunge their records, and even driver’s license suspensions.

The historic passage of Senate Bill 48 represents a new chapter in New Jersey’s criminal justice reform. This bill, sponsored by Senators Nellie Pou, Shirley Turner, and Troy Singleton, eliminates fines as a penalty for youth in the juvenile justice system. It also allows for the termination of post-incarceration supervision even when a youth has not made a full payment of all outstanding fines and restitution.

There is a growing movement around the country that recognizes a justice system that is based on one’s income does not provide justice at all. When fines are imposed in the justice system, they disproportionately impact low-income communities, particularly communities of color, and punish individuals for their poverty. They are particularly problematic when imposed on youth, who are uniquely unable to pay – and uniquely deserving of our protection.

Juvenile Law Center has conducted extensive research on fines and fees. Our work in this area has found that fines and fees harm youth and families. Parents struggling to pay their children’s costs have reported choosing between groceries and paying court fees. This is a choice no parent should have to make.

Criminology research shows that fines and fees also increase recidivism, which works against the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system. A recent study by Leslie Paik and Chiara Packard relies on in-depth interviews of youth, families, and victims and finds that costs increase economic instability for families and increases recidivism rates. New Jersey, like other states, has a juvenile justice system designed, at least in part, to “provide for the care, protection, and wholesome mental and physical development of juveniles.” As the legislature has realized, imposing fines does the opposite.

Significantly, fines and fees also cause inequity. Because youth of color are more likely than their white peers to enter the justice system, to stay on probation, and to be placed out of the home, families of color tend to pay more into the system than white families. This creates a system where children whose parents have more resources can quickly pay off any fines and fees, while children from low-income households have their cases open longer. Eliminating fines and fees can help to create a more equitable system. One of the purposes of the New Jersey bill is to combat “racial and ethnic disparities” by “identify[ing] policies and practices that may disadvantage minority juveniles.” Eliminating fines does just that.

Fines are not necessary for a well-functioning juvenile justice system. A handful of states impose no fines. Washington state recently passed the Youth Equality and

Reintegration (YEAR) Act eliminating certain fines. Maryland is considering similar legislation; there is momentum for changes to make our systems more equitable.

To return to the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system, states must follow New Jersey’s example and eliminate juvenile fines.

 

Katrina L. Goodjoint is the staff attorney for the Juvenile Law Center.

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