Nick Perez was 16 and getting into small-time trouble, the way kids often do. Once, the police picked him up when he and his friends broke into an empty mansion near his home in Leesburg, Florida, just to see what was inside. Later, he got caught on a minor marijuana possession charge.
In court, a judge ordered Perez to house arrest. He was only supposed to go to school and come home, and he had a curfew. But he violated that curfew several times, and the court responded by placing him in juvenile detention for about a month.
After he was released, Perez’s mother, Angelia Smith, started getting bills from Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice. Smith owed around $1,000 in fees for her son’s time in detention. Perez was in high school and not working yet, and it was more than Smith could afford. Eventually, the debt went into collections.
Court fees can be insurmountable for young people like Perez, now 22. “It felt terrible,” he explains. “I was young, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Advocates have long asserted that monetary sanctions disproportionately harm low-income youth of color and their families, essentially functioning as a regressive tax on those who have the least ability to pay and trapping them in a system that drives vast social ills.
Now, new research confirms these suspicions, showing that there are indeed racial inequities in the way courts assign fees to youth and the impacts those fees have. According to a first-of-its-kind study from the University of Miami, Florida courts are more likely to assign fees to Black and Hispanic youth in disadvantaged areas and levy higher fees when they do. The study also finds that youth with court debt are more likely to have future justice system involvement.
Fines and fees are not operating in a deterrent way, they’re actually exacerbating the problem.Alex Piquero University of Miami
“When you look at our report in totality, it shows that fines and fees are not operating in a deterrent way. They’re actually exacerbating the problem.” says Alex Piquero, a professor of criminology & sociology and arts & sciences distinguished scholar at the University of Miami, who conducted the study in 2022, prior to being appointed by President Biden as the director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics last June.
Perez’s outstanding fees prevented him from getting a driver’s license, making it difficult for him to get a job. But, in the end, his debt weighs most heavily on his mother. It has badly damaged her credit, undermining her ability to rent a home or finance a car.
“It still hurts,” Smith says, “because I know that if I go today and try to apply for a house, that’s going to pop up.”
Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of the Juvenile Law Center (JLC), a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that supports an effort to end fines and fees in the justice system through the nationwide Debt Free Justice campaign, says this situation is not unusual. “Young people are being asked to pay money they don’t have,” she explains. “When they can’t pay, they suffer in their family connections and economic status, and face deeper and harsher justice involvement.” At the same time, such monetary sanctions are ineffective, for both the state and taxpayers, providing little in the way of revenue.
‘Results in More Crime’
To understand more about the effects of fees, Piquero and his colleagues obtained statewide data from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (FDJJ) on youth demographics, offense history, justice system placement, and zip code, as well as whether fees and restitution were assigned. Piquero notes that Florida was particularly interesting because the FDJJ maintains demographic data not only on Black and white youth but also Hispanic youth, a population that has been understudied on juvenile criminal justice issues. In total, the study examined over 12,600 youth completing a community-based FDJJ placement — which includes programs like court diversion, probation supervision, day treatment, and intensive therapy — over the course of one year between 2018 and 2019.
The research team also surveyed a sample of youth placed in an FDJJ residential facility. Forty-five volunteers, aged 12 to 19, completed a brief, anonymous questionnaire that allowed the researchers to gather qualitative information on young people’s experience of fees and restitution.
While there were no racial or ethnic differences in the proportion of youth receiving fees, both Black and Hispanic youth were assigned significantly higher amounts in cases where fees were levied, with Black youth receiving an average of $709.50, Hispanic youth receiving $633.30, and white youth receiving $426.50. Courts also administered higher fee amounts to young people living in disadvantaged areas, by about $11 on average.
Most strikingly, the research revealed that being assigned fees was associated with an increase in the likelihood of recidivism, with 19.4% of youth committing a new crime compared to 15.7% of similarly situated youth who were not assigned fees. In particular, Black youth who were assigned fees faced a higher risk of committing another crime.
“One hope for the juvenile system is that it will deter people from engaging in criminal activity,” says Cybele Kotonias, director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, which supported the new research. “If the state is taking an action that results in more crime, I think that should give any policymaker pause.”
Meanwhile, the report’s qualitative data showed that roughly one-third of youth surveyed did not understand the full effect that fees have on them and their families, indicating that they did not know whether they received monetary sanctions, the type of sanctions, the amount assigned, or whether it was paid. When youth were asked whether they could personally pay $100 or more of monetary sanctions, around 15% indicated that they would have to stop paying bills in order to pay their court debt, while 13% reported that they would need to resort to criminal activity.
The findings echo those of a 2016 study that Piquero conducted in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which found that courts disproportionately saddled Black youth with fees and that being assigned fees increased their recidivism rates.
Piquero explains that his hope is to provide lawmakers with data that will help them make better-informed decisions about the administration of justice. “I want decision-makers to use the best available science at the time when they weigh policy options,” he says.
Moving the Needle on State Policy
Advocacy groups are newly energized by the study’s findings. Over the past two years, the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC) and JLC sought to pass two bills in Florida that would end all fees for youth in the state’s juvenile justice system but were unable to garner enough support from the state’s legislature for complete elimination. Meanwhile, the state is only able to collect a very small portion of the fees it assigns. Its annual goal is to collect just 9% of all fees; in 2021, a good year, it collected 11%.
This legislative session, FFJC is working with JLC to advance legislation that zeroes in on eliminating two specific fees: a $5 per day cost of care for a child in custody, and a $1 per day cost of care for a child under community supervision, like probation.
The fees in question may sound small, but “if a child is under supervision for over a year, they reach more than $365,” says Sarah Couture, Florida state director of FFJC, “so it adds up.” From 2021 to 2022, the Department of Juvenile Justice billed a combined $2.3 million to families for cost-of-care and community supervision fees; it collected just $493,000, or 22%, of that amount.
“If you’re a low-income family, and you have a child who owes fees, and you want to get them out of the system, you’re probably going to have to make a choice,” Couture says. “Do I pay this electrical bill, or do I pay this court fee? Do I put healthy food on the table, or do I pay this court fee?”
FFJC hopes that the new findings from the University of Miami will help sway lawmakers by shedding new light on the problem — and its pernicious effects on local youth. In their efforts, FFJC has drawn supporters from across the political spectrum, including both the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative think tank Americans for Prosperity.
Feierman believes that this study will have an impact not only in Florida but around the country. Debt Free Justice, the campaign that JLC runs along with Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic and the National Center for Youth Law, supports grassroots advocacy for legislative change to end court fines and fees in the juvenile justice system. Their efforts have supported court reform on fines and fees in states from California to Louisiana, Maryland to Texas.
We all need to know the impact of fines and fees on children. The study makes clear that these financial obligations hurt young people.Jessica Feierman Juvenile Law Center
“This study is going to be incredibly helpful,” Feierman says. “We all need to know the impact of fines and fees on children. The study makes clear that these financial obligations hurt young people and undermine public safety. We’ll be able to share that information around the country to support our advocacy efforts.”
For her part, Smith found FFJC when she was looking for help with her case. She became a member of the organization’s advisory board and is now active in the campaign to end juvenile fees in Florida.
“I’m thankful to be part of a movement that is trying to help the younger generation overcome, and to give them a chance,” Smith says. She has offered to tell her story to lawmakers during the current legislative session.
Perez has also recently joined FFJC meetings and hopes to become more involved in efforts to end fees that hurt young people like him.
“They’re too young,” he says, of youth burdened with court fees. “Most of them are younger than I was, most don’t have jobs, and all that debt gets pushed onto the parents. Our families go through a lot.”