“I’m really in despair,” Tindal said. “There’s a dark cloud over my life. I have absolutely nothing.”
Tindal is one of many Americans forced to pay fines, fees and restitution while interacting with the juvenile justice system. Laws in almost all states allow courts to charge children and their families for a variety of items and services, including public defenders, drug testing and probation supervision. Research shows these administrative costs have a disparate impact on low-income juveniles of color and increases chances for recidivism.
Last year, California became the first state to repeal the fees after advocates lobbied for the change, though courts can still charge youths fines as punishment and as restitution for victims. The movement for repeal spread last month to Louisiana, when the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court became the first jurisdiction in the South to end the assessment and collection of discretionary juvenile fees, advocates said in a statement.
“We are grateful to the Court for taking this important step in New Orleans, but we see court fees hurting vulnerable kids up and down the state,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, an advocate who lobbied for the policy change in Louisiana. “We hope other juvenile courts will follow the example of Orleans Parish to support youth and their families.”
The implementation of the statutes nationwide are typically discretionary and vary by jurisdiction. In Arkansas, courts can charge youths $35 for court costs. In Texas, courts can charge $20 for disposition hearings. And in Oregon, courts can fine families $1,000 if they fail to pay for probation supervision or assessment fees.
Although the practice is widely opposed, some lawmakers, such as Utah state Rep. V. Lowry Snow (R), support the overarching idea because it upholds “one of the fundamental principles of juvenile justice — accountability,” he told The Washington Post.
“The cost needs to fall on the actor, not the family,” said Snow, who sponsored a 2017 state bill to make the practice more uniform in Utah. “The practice is appropriate, so long as it’s fair and equitable and takes into account the fact that not every family has the same ability to satisfy the financial obligations,” Snow said, noting the practice needs to be reformed because of its disproportionate impact on low-income juveniles and youths of color.
But research by the Policy Advocacy Clinic found the implementation of California statutes disproportionately harmed families of color and frequently violated state and federal law by depriving youths and their families of due process and equal protection — deepening already intense racial disparities in the California justice system. The report also found that families were wrongfully charged. Tindal told The Post she should be exempt from these charges because of her status as a foster parent.
The origin of the California statutes stretch back to 1961 and were created as a source of revenue for government agencies, according to PAC’s report. Throughout the years, statutes were expanded to include charging for public defenders, probation supervision and detaining youths in detention centers, the report said.
The 2017 California bill that banned the practice received bipartisan support — 94 of 119 lawmakers voted for it. And since the statewide repeal, 58 counties have stopped collecting the fees, relieving many families of almost $225 million in outstanding charges. Today, 29 counties continue to collect on more than $150 million in fees charged before the ban, according to Selbin, though he thinks the remaining counties will end collection soon.
Beyond the general charges for fees and restitution, experts say that laws in 40 states allow courts to evade juveniles’ legal right to an attorney by charging for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys.
The U.S. Constitution affords all defendants (juveniles and adults) the right to counsel — if they cannot afford an attorney, the court must appoint one. And the presumption is that this counsel is to be free. But a report obtained by The Post found that impoverished families are often required to pay for counsel even after a court deems them too poor to pay.
“Children’s access to justice shouldn’t depend on their access to money,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of Juvenile Law Center and co-author of the report. “This creates a system for justice by income.”
Feierman expressed concern that this practice prompts youths to plea out or go to court without counsel.
“This heightens their risk of being deprived of their liberty, separated from their families and incarcerated,” she said.
The report found severe consequences for families who fail to pay. In Wisconsin, parents can be sent to a collections agency. In Minnesota, families can have their incomes and tax returns garnished. And in Oklahoma and Florida, parents who refuse court-appointed counsel can be held in contempt of court.
The Obama administration in 2017 issued an advisory to jurisdictions throughout the nation, urging them to “consider whether the imposition or enforcement of fines and fees in any particular case comports with the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions in December rescinded the advisory as an overreach of power. The Department of Justice declined in an email to say whether it has a stance on the nationwide practice.
Tindal said her life has not gotten back to normal since the $16,000 bill. After losing her home, she was forced to move in with her son. She quit her job because her income kept getting seized, and she stopped fostering children because of this loss of financial stability. Not being able to be a foster mom, she said, is one of the worst parts of her new reality.
“I had no clue what was coming my way,” Tindal said. “I felt blindsided and taken advantage of by the system.”
Jessica Bartholow, an advocate who worked on the 2017 repeal of juvenile fees in California, told The Post that Tindal plans to fight for a reversal of the $16,000 bill.
The practice “scares people from being foster parents and keeps children who have experienced high trauma in their early lives from finding [good] homes,” said Bartholow, who is also a policy advocate at Western Center on Law & Poverty, in an email.
“Ms. Tindal hopes that by fighting these fees, she will not only free herself of payments she cannot afford, but that all foster parents will be protected from fees,” she said.
A previous version of this report incorrectly said that 107 California lawmakers voted to repeal fees incurred by juvenile offenders. This post has been updated to show that 94 lawmakers voted for the repeal. Also, a previous version of this post incorrectly spelled Brenda Tindal’s last name.