OP-ED: Eliminate Fees Charged to Youth in Wyoming’s Justice System

Lila Konecky is serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA participant with the Wyoming Children’s Law Center’s Wyoming Youth Justice Coalition in Laramie. (Courtesy photo)

By Lila Konecky

Wyoming Youth Justice Coalition, in partnership with Debt Free Justice

Fees charged to youths in the justice system for things like public defenders, juries and the cost of incarceration are harmful for Wyoming’s families and wasteful for the government. Fees are fundamentally a tax on youth and families –– designed only to generate revenue for the state, not to deter violations or compensate victims of crime. But they fail even this single mission. Fees are an inefficient revenue stream, weaken family ties and increase youth involvement in the system. The solution to this problem is simple: the Wyoming legislature can join the nationwide movement of states and counties in eliminating juvenile court fees.

Last year, the House Judiciary Committee considered HB 246, which would have eliminated juvenile fines and fees. Committee Chairman Jared Olsen (District 11 – Laramie County) summarized the issue perfectly: “If anyone spent any time looking at any national data, it would be clear to them that fines and fees do not impact… the (recidivism) rate as you would hope it would.” Unfortunately, the bill did not pass –– prosecutors testified in opposition, worried that eliminating fines would take away an important sanction. However, the only concerns raised about eliminating fees were that they would take away from a government revenue stream. Yet, fees generally net little to no revenue.

Juvenile fees are actually quite costly –– cities and counties often spend more on fee collection than they generate in revenue, needlessly growing government and diverting resources away from other community services. A study of New Mexico, Texas and Florida found that localities spent $1.17 for every $1 collected in court fees, and Santa Clara County, California, spent $450,000 to collect $400,000 in juvenile fees in 2016. Furthermore, fees have been shown to increase the likelihood that a youth will be involved in the system in the future, in turn, costing the state more money down the road. In places that rely more heavily on fees for revenue, police are less able to close serious cases because they waste time acting as collection agents.

Perhaps more important than revenue, experts, advocates and system stakeholders agree that fees serve no purpose and hurt youth and families. Monetary sanctions are often borne by the family unit, rather than the young person, and can keep lower-income families from paying rent or utilities. One study showed that fees “have (a) significant negative impact on family life, in material and emotional ways.” Fees not only impact the children and parents, but also negatively affect siblings’ relationships.

Fees often increase the likelihood of future contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems. A study of adolescents found that higher financial penalties correlated with higher rates of recidivism. Clearly, fees are not having their intended impact, and alternative measures must be found to rehabilitate juveniles in the system.

There is great momentum for this movement: Just this year, six states joined the 23 total that have reduced or eliminated juvenile fees. A growing chorus of stakeholders –– including national associations of prosecutors, public defenders, judges and law enforcement officials –– have called on states to eliminate juvenile fees. Advocacy organizations across the political spectrum like the Wyoming Liberty Group, Americans for Prosperity and the ACLU have also joined the fight against juvenile fees. Wyoming has an opportunity to follow their advice, use tax dollars more wisely, strengthen family ties and decrease recidivism among youth in the system.

Wyoming’s Joint Judiciary Committee made juvenile justice its top priority during the recent interim session and has already taken steps to improve the juvenile system by considering several important bills proposed by the Wyoming Youth Justice Coalition. Committee members should also join the Debt Free Justice movement.

Contact your state representatives to let them know you support the elimination of fees charged to youth in the justice system.

Lila Konecky is serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA participant with the Wyoming Children’s Law Center’s Wyoming Youth Justice Coalition in Laramie. The coalition includes a diverse group of who seek to “improve the youth justice system so kids can create new futures” in Wyoming. Konecky wrote this in partnership with Debt Free Justice, a national organization “dedicated to ending the harmful and unjust fees and fines imposed on youth in the justice system and their families.”

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