[Editor’s note: A new ‘must read’ report from authors Gene Nichol and Heather Hunt of the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund at the UNC School of Law provides a powerful and damning examination of the ways in which poverty has become, in the words of one knowledgeable attorney, “the foundational principle of what’s going on” in North Carolina’s juvenile justice system. As Nichol explained in an email introducing the report:
Although fines and fees are less pervasive in the state’s juvenile system than in criminal court, our experts told us that they are regularly assessed, often in the form of attorney’s fees. Because most kids in juvenile court are poor, these additional fees represent a real burden for families that are already financially fragile. Additionally, kids who are prosecuted as adults are charged the full range of court costs, fines and fees that adult defendants have to pay.
Beyond court debt, our research partners told us how poverty sabotages youth in the juvenile system. They described how parents struggling to get by can’t spare the time the juvenile system demands. How limited or nonexistent transportation cuts off diversion opportunities for youth. How housing instability or homelessness increase the chances that a young person will be locked up. How barriers to Medicaid-funded mental health services drag cases out and prevent youth from accessing treatments that could help them. The direct and indirect costs imposed by the juvenile system come down hardest on those families with the fewest resources. Unable to comply with the mandates of the juvenile system, youth and parents are punished in ways that perpetuate poverty. Racial disparities in poverty, schools and the legal system mean that Black families are disproportionately harmed.
As we conclude in our report, ‘Becoming involved in the juvenile system carries a heavy price, economic and non-economic, for young people and their families. For those who fall short, the consequences are formidable: additional sanctions that undermine family well-being, push children deeper into the juvenile system, wound future prospects, and entrench economic hardship and racial disparity. The concept of equal justice under law is eroded.’”
This following is from the introduction to “The price of poverty in North Carolina’s juvenile justice system”:
We may need a juvenile court system, it maybe appropriate in some situations, but not for the vast majority of kids who are doing dumb but developmentally normal things. The harm is immeasurable. It’s bad for any kid but especially for poor kids who already have everything stacked against them. —Child advocate
Numerous hard-fought and crucial changes to North Carolina’s juvenile justice system are underway. The Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act assures that many teenagers will not be charged as adults. Modest steps to reduce the school-to prison pipeline and address racial disparities have been initiated.But worrisome challenges of poverty and race continue to pervade the juvenile system.
“Juvenile courts are filled with low-income families,” we were told. Another interview participant indicated that poverty is “the foundational principle of what’s going on” in the North Carolina juvenile justice system. The “vast majority of my clients,” a third reported, “are at or below the poverty level … families with means simply don’t end up in the juvenile justice system.”
Juvenile courts in North Carolina are statutorily authorized to assess a range of fees against parents. Courts can also order the youth to pay a fine or restitution. These court-levied costs and fees, though not as extensive as in the adult criminal justice system, can represent real hardship for families that are already struggling on other fronts. In our research, the most common fee reported is for court-appointed counsel, rendering the constitutional right to an attorney hollow. Youths tried as adults are on the hook for the wide array of costs and fees that we have examined elsewhere. For many poor or near-poor Tar Heels, these additional expenses mean sacrificing other basic needs.
The imposition of fees in the juvenile system is not rare, though their prevalence varies notably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The relative informality, autonomy and diminished public visibility of juvenile courts creates a patchwork system, thwarting attempts to draw broad statewide conclusions. Our preliminary research, however, reveals that fees are sufficiently widespread to merit further investigation.
Indirect or “buried” costs are also a huge burden for poor families. Juvenile cases are time-consuming; the terms can be complicated, demanding and long-lasting. Constraints on time, transportation, housing and access to services hobble economically disadvantaged families’ attempts to comply with diversion plans and court orders. Failure to comply leads to prolonged supervision, more restrictions, tougher penalties and a spiral of negative consequences. Low-income families fall into the gap between what the court orders them to do and what they can feasibly accomplish. When they fail, their children pay the price.
The school to prison pipeline is the source of a large share—almost half—of juvenile complaints. School resource officers and disciplinary measures like suspension contribute to the pipeline. School based complaints and school discipline are notably characterized by large racial disparities. Black youth are overrepresented in juvenile processes nationally, constituting about 35% of cases but only 14% of the total youth population. The school to prison pipeline reflects and amplifies these inequities.
Becoming involved in the juvenile system carries a heavy price, economic and non-economic, for young people and their families. For those who fall short, the consequences are formidable: additional sanctions that undermine family well-being, push children deeper into the juvenile system, wound future prospects, and entrench economic hardship and racial disparity. The concept of equal justice under law is eroded.
The due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibit state and local governments from “punishing a person for his poverty.” Justice Hugo Black wrote, more famously, nearly seven decades ago, that “There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.” The operation of the juvenile justice system in North Carolina frequently poses significant tensions with these foundational principles. There should be no “poor man’s justice.” There should be no “poor kids’ justice” either.