The Cost of Justice

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“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” The right to legal representation is one of the hallmarks of our justice system. What happens, though, when youth move through the juvenile (and sometimes adult) systems without legal representation? A recently released report by the Juvenile Law Center, examines the impact “free” counsel has on system-impacted youth.

Public defenders exist for those who are accused of a crime and cannot afford to hire a private attorney. The Supreme Court case In re Gault recognized the importance of legal representation for youth in court proceedings. Most adults are not equipped with the legal knowledge to represent themselves in court, so the importance of lawyers for youth is critically important.

The frustrating part is how many jurisdictions have high fines and fees associated with accessing public defenders for indigent youth. Many states impose administration fees, application costs, cost of detention or probationary monitoring, and even reimbursement costs for the appointed lawyer. With the assumption that most youth are not able to pay these costs, it then falls on the family to foot the bill. This is problematic because many families living in poverty do not have expendable cash to cover the costs.

So how does this impact youth and their families? Thirty percent of youth in the study had reported that when faced with the cost of a lawyer, they just waived their right to counsel. Families in Florida reported pressuring youth with additional costs to coerce them into a guilty plea. This all culminates in deeper system involvement. It’s not uncommon for youth to spend extended time in detention or on probation because they cannot pay off their fines despite satisfying all other terms like monthly check ins, time served, or classes. Nearly half of youth in the study reported that their cases were held open longer because of their inability to pay. As we know, the longer the time spent in the system, the higher the risk for coming back into contact with the justice system.

There is good news, however, especially in California where lawmakers are leading the way with SB 190. This Act, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in October 2017, ends the practice of charging youth and their families for administrative fees, stays in detention, drug testing, or probationary monitoring. Los Angeles County just last month erased almost $90 million in debt for families with youth in detention or probationary monitoring programs. Both are a massive step forward in improving the lives of system involved youth and their families.

The purpose of the juvenile justice system is to provide rehabilitation and a second chance for at risk youth. Youth should not be punished and lose their opportunity for a promising future simply because they are touched by poverty.