Washington, D.C. — A new report from Juvenile Law Center shows 40 states have laws that permit or require courts to charge young people for “free” court-appointed attorneys, including public defenders.
The study, which was funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), reveals these fees for using a court-appointed attorney are often steep. In some states, juveniles and their families are required to reimburse the court at rates of hundreds of dollars an hour for their attorney.
Researchers found courts regularly impose these costs — even to families determined to be indigent — and that the financial obligations can lead to devastating consequences. When families can’t afford to pay, they can be held in contempt of court, receive a civil judgment, or receive liens against their properties; youth can also remain under justice system supervision longer. This pushes struggling families further into poverty and youth further into the justice system.
Research has shown that youth of color are more likely than white youth to be criminalized for the same behavior and enter the criminal justice system more often.
“Imposing these costs, rather than fulfilling a constitutional obligation to provide free counsel, disproportionately affects youth of color and their families,” said Kelli Rhee, President and CEO of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. “Fair treatment shouldn’t come with a price tag. A family might waive their right to counsel because they can’t afford these fees.”
In 1963, the United States Supreme Court established in Gideon v. Wainwright that, under the Sixth Amendment, a criminal defendant who cannot afford to hire a lawyer must be provided one at no cost. A few years later, the Court held that juveniles, like adults in criminal cases, have the right to an attorney free of cost.
“Juvenile Law Center’s research shows us most states have policies that fail to protect children’s constitutional right to counsel,” said Julie James, Director of Criminal Justice at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. “JLC’s work points to a clear path forward — ensuring that 'free' counsel is truly free of any financial obligation on the part of youth or their families.”
In 2017, LJAF awarded the Juvenile Law Center a three-year, $1.2 million grant to study the impact of legal counsel fees on youth and their families, advise court officials and other stakeholders working on statutory and policy reform at the state and local levels, and engage in targeted litigation to ban the use of unjust costs and fees.
“Children’s access to justice shouldn’t depend on their access to money,” said Jessica Feierman, Associate Director at Juvenile Law Center and study co-author. “When faced with fees, however, many youth choose to plead guilty or appear in court without a lawyer. This heightens their risk of being deprived of their liberty, separated from their families, and incarcerated.”