On Wednesday, September 18, 2019, the Juvenile Law Center hosted a panel discussion on H.R.2300: Eliminating Debtor’s Prison for Kids Act of 2019. Sponsored by Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA), H.R. 2300 incentivizes states to end the costs, fines, and fees associated with the juvenile justice system—which are particularly harmful to children living in low-income and low-income families. Specifically, the bill aims to establish a grant to provide trauma-informed, evidence-based mental health services and behavioral health services to youth at-risk of juvenile justice involvement, or deeper system involvement, serving as both a preventative and interventionist measure.

Speakers included Judge John J. Romero from the Children’s Court Division of the Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Nadia Mozaffar from Juvenile Law Center, Stephanie Campos-Bui from the Policy Advocacy Clinic at Berkeley Law, Ebony Wortham from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, and Jennifer Woolard from Georgetown University. The panelist presented perspectives on how costs and fees negatively impact young people and their families, highlighting their efforts in areas of the judiciary, research, and advocacy.

Congressman Cardenas asserted that H.R.2300 adds to the efforts of this movement as it incentivizes local communities to get involved and address this issue. He also made a case for the cost-effectiveness of the bill by noting that the cost of imprisoning a child greatly surpasses the cost of preventative efforts. Congressman Cardenas has previously stated, “We need to eliminate the cruel practice of collecting fines and fees that keep children in jail and American families in debt.”

The science of brain development reveals that young people’s minds are still developing well into their mid-20s. During the adolescent and teenage years, children are not only ill-equipped to understand the actual consequences of their actions, and they often lack the resources (both cognitive and fiscal) necessary to pay for them. For those whose actions put them at risk of, or in contact with, the juvenile justice system, the results are life-changing—potentially leading them down a path of deeper system involvement. This is especially true for children of color – often from low-income families – who are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system.

The costs (administrative, court fees, fines, etc.) associated with system involvement have the propensity to push already struggling families deeper into poverty or deeper into the criminal justice system. Some would argue that to prevent children from repeating problematic behaviors that led to their involvement with the juvenile justice system, children must pay (literally and figuratively) for their crimes. Research shows, however, that there is little to no correlation between assessing fees and fines and community safety. As such, a movement for more wholistic and restorative practices has begun.

Additionally, the panelist also highlighted reform efforts around the country and discussed the positive changes that will result from the passage of H.R.2300. Such efforts (at both the state and local level) include those taking place around the country in places such as California, Nevada, and Washington where these states have passed legislation to eliminate most or all juvenile fines and fees that harm youth and families. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, families are no longer billed for the cost of youth incarceration, which has resulted in many families having to choose between bills and everyday necessities or experiencing debt. Other noteworthy locations are taking place in Shelby County (Memphis), Orleans Parish (New Orleans), Louisiana, Dane County (Madison), Wisconsin, and Johnson County (Kansas City metro area). The passage of H.R.2300 has the propensity to continue these states and localities efforts of ending various charges levied against youth and their families for their involvement in the juvenile justice system.

To download the Juvenile Law Center report, Debtor’s Prison for Kids, click here.

About the Author:

John Sciamanna is CWLA's Vice President of Public Policy.

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