Debtor’s Prisons for Kids: The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System


A new report by the Juvenile Law Center, entitled “Debtor’s Prisons for Kids: The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System” reveals that fines and fees levied in the juvenile justice system are forcing kids to be locked up longer when their families can’t pay—which could be unconstitutional.

In 1983, the Supreme Court made a ruling in the Bearden v Georgia case which held that a judge must first consider whether or not a defendant has the ability to pay court fines and restitution before revoking their probation. However, not only has this ruling seemed to become overlooked, but it has been taken to the extreme. Judges are now imprisoning minors for fines and restitution that they are not able to pay—essentially punishing them for their family’s poverty.

About one million youth must appear in juvenile court each year. These youth and their families are then faced with fees, fines, and restitution for the minor’s infraction. When juveniles and/or their families are not able to afford these fees, the consequences often include extended probation or even incarceration. Being faced with these options, families are often pushed even further into debt, while their child becomes entangled in the criminal legal system.

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Much like the Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline (aka School-to-Prison-Pipeline) these Juvenile Debtor’s Prisons lead to an increase in recidivism and a cycle of mass incarceration, ultimately eroding entire communities.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, fines are levied on children’s families in the following ways:

  • Care, Treatment, Placement, and Support
    • Courts can charge a fee for any treatment, counseling, or rehabilitation that may be needed for the child, without requiring finding of guilt.
    • These fees can also include child support, costs of the child’s custody, detention, or placement in a facility, and the costs of their shelter, food, and clothing.
  • Evaluation and Testing
    • If examinations or assessments are required (such as mental health evaluations, drug and alcohol tests, tests for STIs, and DNA and blood tests), the child’s family is required to pay the costs.
  • Fines and Restitution
    • The child’s family is responsible for paying any fines and restitution that the child may incur, including $100 per day for failure to participate or comply with conditions and limitations set for the rehabilitation of a child engaged in truancy.

Though research is still being done on Juvenile Debtor’s Prisons, some studies suggest that the fees and fines that these families incur have a very limited benefit to the states and counties that they are paid to.

The Juvenile Law Center has released an accompanying “Toolkit for Eliminating Costs, Fines, and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System”, which offers recommendations for developmentally appropriate policies on costs, fines, and fees for youth.

What are your thoughts on the Juvenile Debtor’s Prison? How can Virginians help to make a change? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Ki’ara Montgomery is a Senior at Virginia Commonwealth University with plans to graduate in May 2017. She is obtaining a bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. While in school, she has had opportunities with VCU AmeriCorps, Culture4MyKids, VCU School of Education, and the Richmond Raiders. She is currently interning with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance with a focus in development, policy, and communications.

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This article is part of the Action Alliance’s blog series on Virginia’s Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline.

The Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline (aka “School-to-Prison-Pipeline”) fails young people who are experiencing high levels of toxic stress and/or trauma by responding in overly punitive ways to youth who exhibit normal reactions to trauma and toxic stress.

Youth of color and youth with disabilities are particularly targeted for disproportionately high levels of heavy-handed, punitive responses to vague and subjective infractions in school, such as “defiance of authority”, or “classroom disruption”. Viewed from a trauma-informed lens, these same behaviors may signal youth who are suffering and struggling with ongoing effects of trauma.

 The Action Alliance believes that everyone deserves racially equitable responses that are compassionate and trauma-informed, and which build individual and community assets.

Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335. 

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