“They know I can’t pay it and I know I can’t pay it, but it’s still there.”
Sarah is a mother living in Madison, Wis., whose son was involved in juvenile court for breaking a window at his school. Now, she’s struggling to pay bills for court fines and fees (which we refer to as legal financial obligations, or LFOs) that just keep on coming in the mail.
Sarah and her son are not alone.
About 1 million youth in the United States go to juvenile court each year and many of them face legal financial obligations, with some variation across counties for specific charges. These charges can include fees for GPS monitoring, public defenders, stays in detention, out-of-home placement and restitution. The bills can really stack up. And they often fall into the hands of those who are struggling the most financially.
Our recent study, conducted with the support of the Juvenile Law Center, takes a deeper look at the experiences of 20 families involved in the juvenile justice system in Dane County, Wis. Youth and their parents spoke to us about their experiences with court and LFOs. Together, their stories reveal a confusing and stressful process leading to emotional and financial strain and a growing frustration toward the court. Overall, we found the court’s imposition of LFOs on families appears to undermine its very efforts to support youth and reduce recidivism.
The stories these families told often began with an unanticipated letter in the mail. Most of the parents who spoke to us said they became aware of the LFOs only after receiving a bill in the mail. One mother expressed frustration with this perceived lack of communication from the court. She said, “No one gave me a heads up. No one said anything.” These charges ranged in amount and could consist of $25/month for a delinquency supervision fee or $240 for a public defender in a misdemeanor case.
Some families attempted to reduce their charges by filing forms to the court that show they do not have enough income to pay. However, the process was not as straightforward as one might expect. One mother, Veronica, has three young boys, the eldest of which is involved in juvenile court. She described to us what happened when she called to complain: “I called the number that was on the paper that I received, which was Dane County Human Services … They offered the payment plan that I wasn’t able to make … I said I didn’t agree to it and basically that was the end of the call … I still get it in the mail that they want $115 from me.” This apparent lack of communication and inflexibility from the court makes parents feel unheard and disrespected.
Bills hurt family ties
Families told us they felt financially stretched even before their youth’s involvement in court and that these bills made matters worse. One mother, Tierra, told us “It’s hard […] I can’t afford this … I got other kids, you know, I’m taking away from their future.” Julio, a father who has three daughters and supports his entire family working a low-income job, told us, “I don’t have the money that I can throw around. I live day by day. It’s harder. You’re the only one working … You got to support the family.” His daughter sees her father struggling financially, and told us, “For the most part with his checks that come in, we have to pay for like the rent, electricity … Things that we need… It’s [the LFOs] adding on to more of what my dad owes.”
These bills lead not only to financial strain, but also have the consequence of affecting the emotional wellbeing of parents and the relationship with their kids. Sarah told us, “It just adds a level of anxiety that shouldn’t be there, when everything is so difficult already … I already struggle enough, you know, with no income.”
Parents described how the bills led to anxiety and stress in the face of growing debt to a system that disregards their financial situation. In describing her long conversation with someone in the system about these bills, Olga said, “They weren’t very understanding. They were like, ‘This is the way it is.’ And I’m like, well, that’s unfortunate […] You know, that’s just adding more and more stress to my stressful situation already.” Olga’s experience illustrates how these legal financial obligations can contribute to perceptions of the court as cold and uncaring.
Given the heightened emotional effects of bills on families, it makes sense that the relationships between the youths and their parents are affected as well. One young teenager told us, “Me and my mom kind of get like into it over money … she’s like, ‘They took all of what I could give you ’cause you been in jail…’” These financial obligations can jeopardize the very familial relationships that are so critical to helping a youth overcome hardship and comply with court mandates.
Based on our research, we believe it is important to consider how the impact of LFOs as well as the process through which they are assessed can jeopardize the very things that could help kids stay out of trouble — parental emotional support and economic security. For many families, the goals of the LFOs were unclear: Are they meant to teach kids and their parents responsibility, to simply offset the costs of the justice system or both?
If the goals of juvenile court include teaching kids responsibility and supporting families so youth don’t recidivate, we recommend the following two different paths for reform. First and foremost, counties should seriously consider abolishing LFOs altogether and design meaningful alternatives instead that do teach youth responsibility. But if counties do continue to charge families, they should reassess how they evaluate ability to pay, making sure families who are charged actually have the means to pay, as well as make an effort to increase transparency and clarity so families are aware of the financial costs they may face throughout the court process and can make informed decisions about their kid’s case.
As one grandmother told us, “I do believe in teaching kids responsibility, but there’s a difference between responsibility and the way the system has abused people.”
Chiara Packard is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research explores both the consequences of involvement in the criminal justice system and the decision-making process of key actors within the system.
Leslie Paik is an associate professor of sociology at The City College of the City University of New York. Her research primarily focuses on the juvenile justice system; in addition to her current work on fines, fees and restitution, she has looked at legal decision-making in juvenile drug courts and family involvement in mainstream juvenile court settings.