Lawmakers in Tallahassee have introduced the Debt-Free Justice for Children Act which could eliminate court fees for minors in the juvenile justice system. Here's what you should know.
The Debt-Free Justice for Children Act
Legislatures have introduced a bill, HB 257/SB 428, as a part of the Debt-Free Justice for Children Act. The bipartisan coalition of representatives proposes reforming the juvenile justice system and eliminating court fees for juvenile offenders.
The current system imposes court fees on minors that must be paid, or the child will face penalties. In most cases, parents are often unable to afford the exorbitant fees. A 2019 study found that court fees for juvenile offenders reached $5.1 million.
However, while these fees are mandatory, many parents simply cannot afford to pay them, and it's hard to collect. In fact, only 11% of all court fees were collected.
Why Are Fees So Bad?
Court fees for juveniles are comparable to bail for adults. If the fees cannot be paid, the child could spend more time in a juvenile detention center or under police custody. Even in cases where the offender is released, these costs continue to follow them into adulthood.
Debt is a terrible burden that doesn't discourage bad behavior. In fact, court debt has been shown to increase the likelihood of a repeat offense, increase the probation term, and make it impossible to obtain a driver's license or get a job.
Young people, in particular, are in a vulnerable stage of life where hardship can change the course of their future. Forcing debt upon children doesn't solve anything, and punishing people for being in debt is a concept better left in the pages of a Dickens novel.
The Juvenile Justice System
The lawmakers behind HB 257/SB 428 see this bill as a way to uphold the mission of the juvenile justice system: reeducation for the sake of reentering society.
Unlike the adult court system, children are charged with an offense and may go to therapy or do community service instead of serving jail time. That's not to say that some offenders don't go to detention facilities, but the judge will evaluate the evidence in the case and decide the best course of action.
Juvenile cases require the court to answer one question: was the offender aware that their actions were wrong, or did they act emotionally or in self-defense? The answer to this question will determine whether the child is detained or if other methods should be used.
In many cases, children may not intend to hurt or commit a crime. It may be impulsive or a symptom of abuse. If the child is in an abusive home, acting out may be a cry for help, in which case sending them to a detention facility only condemns them to being treated as a criminal.
Judges in juvenile court try to offer a fair assessment of the situation and provide the tools necessary to remedy it. For example, suppose there is evidence that the child's actions were coerced by an abusive parent or guardian. In that case, the judge may remove the child from the home and require counseling services to help them deal with the emotional turmoil that comes with abuse.
However, the case could become far more complicated if an offender acted of their own free will and the evidence shows that the crime was premeditated. Violent crimes, in particular, are subject to scrutiny in juvenile court, so if it's evident that the child knew exactly what they were doing, they could be tried in adult court. This is rare and typically only happens with particularly violent cases.
Overall, the point of the juvenile justice system is to give children a second chance. They have the potential to do great things as long as they have the right tools and the court has the power to do that.