The Black Girl Times (BGX) has already covered how justice court related fines contribute to recidivism. Now a February report suggests it doesn’t matter who’s paying the bill, be it you or your parents. Fines and fees share a connection with future acts of delinquency in youth, just as it does with adults.
New research out of Florida reached a host of conclusions about the damaging role fines and fees play in upsetting the life path of Black and brown youth caught in the penal system. The report, A Statewide Analysis of the Impact of Restitution and Fees on Juvenile Recidivism in Florida Across Race & Ethnicity, made several key findings. Firstly, it discovered fines administered to both Black and Hispanic youth were significantly higher fees, particularly among youth residing in areas with greater concentrated economic disadvantage. After matching impacted youth, analysts also discovered the fees increased the likelihood of recidivism in Black youth over that of Hispanic youth.
For the last 20 years, conservative legislatures could not get enough of cutting taxes, but rather than reduce spending, states turn elsewhere to fill budget holes caused by cuts. This includes massive increases in fines and fees, and Florida’s fine system is particularly onerous. Every young person who comes in contact with a Florida court gets stuck with fees, regardless of guilt or innocence. Justice system reform advocate Juvenile Law Center points out that Florida law authorizes “31 different court fees, costs and surcharges” for youth and their families. These include court administration fees, public defense fees, medical fees, detention costs, arbitrary surcharges, and overpriced supervision fees.
These mounting costs are easily enough to push thousands of children and their families into debt.
The 12,693 youth studied showed Black youth facing an average of $709.50 in costs while Hispanic youth got saddled with an average of $633.33 in fees. White youth, in comparison, saw an average bill of $426.50 for their transgressions. Young males got an average $636.60 in fees, vs young women who got $414. Survey demographics for the report were 73.3% male, 43.8% Black, 38.4% white and 17.8% Hispanic.
Most youth, especially those under the legal age to obtain employment, have no means to pay any monetary sanctions on their own, so the costs are distributed to their families along with the unfortunate bonus of debt stress. The report discovered nearly half of respondents had to get the money from family or friends. This is a big problem for a family from an impoverished neighborhood, which feels the impact of a new bill more acutely. About 33% of respondents said their families would not be able to pay other bills when the court fees came due. Another 24% admitted the fees would negatively impact their families, and roughly 28.9% of respondents said their families would have to borrow to pay the money.
Another 33% said the fees would negatively impact family relationships and cause tension, which brings into question problems with family and family relationships being among the most important risk factors for juvenile offending and delinquency in Florida.
In the state of Florida—as in many other states—youth with outstanding court debt are not allowed to expunge their records. Neither are they able to obtain driver’s licenses or participate in job corps programs. If the fees aren’t paid, the child could spend more time in a detention center or under some form of police custody. These factors all work together to diminish young people’s chances for success in adulthood, and/or delaying their social growth by years.
The report also brought to light the possibility of court fees more directly encouraging recidivism by tempting youth to engage in illegal activities to pay them off. The survey discovered 13.3% of the youth respondents were OK with the idea of engaging in additional criminal activity to personally pay the fees.
Despite their impact, very few court fees are ever paid, and it still costs the state money to track the fees and fund people to squeeze people for payment. In 2019, for example, only 11% of the $5.1 million juvenile fees assessed throughout Florida were ever collected. The Juvenile Law Center added that only 13% of the $3.3 million in fees assessed against youth in 2021 was eventually paid. When combined with the deleterious effects outlined in the report, the low “return on investment” of court fees appear to neutralize whatever benefit they were designed to deliver.
Other states have already stopped assigning court fees, and Florida leaders are now considering the possibility of doing the same. Legislators failed to end them in 2021, but critics are urging legislators to reconsider the option this year during the 2023 legislative session.