Justice System Throws Poor Kids Into Debtors’ Prison

Inability to pay fines and fees related to the criminal justice system results in further punishment for youth, including extended sentences and probation.
Inability to pay fines and fees related to the criminal justice system results in further punishment for youth, including extended sentences and probation.

By Christopher Zoukis

It is becoming increasingly obvious that zero-tolerance policies contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, often unfairly punishing youth for offenses that should not be dealt with in the criminal justice system. Involvement in the criminal justice system often kicks off a domino effect toward further interaction with the criminal system.

For non-violent offenses that include truancy, we are not just punishing youth harshly and setting them up for failure, we are also punishing them for being poor. Our criminal justice system as it stands is seemingly set up to ensure that youth — and their families — suffer severe consequences for stepping foot in it. We are not protecting families and communities so much as we are taking away hope and any chance at future success in life.

In a country that practices mass incarceration of adults, we are also the only nation that sentences youth to life without parole. And we continue to jail more youth than ever, despite decreasing crime rates. A million young people appear in court each year. Many are arrested for minor infractions before they leave high school. And this does not bode well. About 75 percent of youth who have spent time in juvenile detention will be incarcerated later in life, and the outlook is most grim for minorities or for those from economically disadvantaged families. We have created an unfair, tiered system of justice — one that ultimately serves no one.

In cases where children and families cannot pay the costs of dealing with the legal system, including court costs, fees, fines, court-ordered exams and assessments, and restitution payments — punishment can be severe. Consequences of the inability to pay can include extended probation, denial of needed treatments and incarceration. These punishments are unrelated to offenses committed. Youth are being punished because they are poor, they get pushed deeper into the system, and families become mired in debt.

For example, a 13-year-old in Arkansas was fined $500 for truancy. Neither he nor his family could pay the fine, so he served three months in a locked facility. Another 13-year-old punished under zero-tolerance policies faced extended sentencing because of fee non-payment. After being charged with battery for accidentally bumping into a teacher in a hallway, the youth plead guilty and served a successful year of probation, curfew, meetings with an anger management counsellor, and working in a food bank. But since neither he, nor his mother, could afford the $200 in court fees, his probation was extended by 14 months.

These are consequences that wealthier families do not even have to consider, let alone face. In a system that is already unfairly prejudiced against minorities and those of lower financial means, we do not need to create further disparity.

We need to radically change the systems setting youth up for lifetimes of failure before they’ve even had a chance to begin. To force children into the criminal justice system for nonviolent offenses like school truancy, and then to subject them to detention centres because they are too poor to pay must be ended. Doing so would immediately reduce the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration. Jailing children for missing school is not a solution for educational, community or criminal justice issues, and certainly solves nothing for the affected youth. We need to scrap policies that submerge kids and drown families in the criminal justice system, and aim to build support, and to build futures — not take them away. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com