By Shellsea Lomeli
In response to the health and economic crisis presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, a collection of national, regional, and state organizations have called for an immediate nationwide moratorium of juvenile “fines, fees, and paying negative consequences for nonpayment.”
COVID-19 continues to negatively affect the economic circumstances of several families across the nation. The statement acknowledged the response of state and local governments to “ensure people stay housed and financially stable during the crisis,” such as suspending evictions and foreclosures. Advocate organizations asked these government officials to take the same accommodating approach toward juvenile fees and fines.
According to the Juvenile Law Center, almost every state imposes costs on children in the juvenile justice system. These fees and fines can extend to thousands of dollars and “are a regressive and radical discriminatory tax on low-income communities and communities of color,” stated the organizations. They also included that these communities were more likely to endure significant economic and financial hardships during the COVID-19 crisis which could be potentially catastrophic.
The signatories of this statement range from human rights to criminal justice organizations, including groups such as ACLU, NAACP, and the University of California, Berkeley Law School Policy Advocacy Clinic. The statement provided comprehensive lists of both general policy recommendations and specific action steps for eight different groups of decision makers such as governors, juvenile public defenders, and law enforcement.
In a general assessment, the participating organizations recommended that states, counties, and juvenile courts immediately take action on a variety of levels, including “suspend[ing] and withdraw[ing] all referrals of unpaid juvenile fee and fine accounts to state taxing and collection authorities and private collection agencies.”
The signatories intended to acknowledge that all rules and regulations must apply to private agencies. For example, state legislatures were urged to “suspend the authority of private agencies from collecting unpaid juvenile fees and fines.” In addition, the statement called for government officials to notify and educate youth and families on the described new policies and procedures.
The policy and action recommendations on suspending juvenile fees and fines should be carried out for “at least the duration of this health and economic crisis,” the participants stated. Doing so would allow for the reduction of harm toward youth and families involved in the juvenile justice system during this crisis.
However, the numerous signatories also used the statement to urge government officials to work toward making these law and policy changes permanent, even after the effects of COVID-19 are condensed. “Many jurisdictions are beginning to realize [that] charging fees and fines to youth in the juvenile system and their families is counterproductive,” the organizations expressed.
According to the statement, juvenile fees and fines threaten youth rehabilitation and increase the likelihood of recidivism among youth. It was also argued that issuing such a charge “nets little or no government revenue,” meaning that suspending or possibly ending juvenile fees and fines nationwide would greatly assist American families’ financial situations without having a significant impact on the government’s monetary gain.
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