OPED: Court should end excessive fines on kids
When Shyara Hill of Philadelphia was 16 years old, she was arrested in school after defending her little brother from a bully. Three years later, she still couldn’t close her juvenile justice case because, having just started her very first job the previous week, she didn’t have the $420 in fees that the court required. For that reason only, she remained on probation for another year.
In Arkansas, a 13-year-old boy we at Juvenile Law Center interviewed, who asked that his name not be used, spent three months in a locked juvenile facility — including time in solitary confinement — because he could not pay a $500 fine for skipping school. He wasn’t represented by a lawyer in court, and he didn’t argue for any other outcome because he knew that neither he nor his mother could afford the fine.
On Nov. 28, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could have serious implications for youth across the country. It will consider the case of Tyson Timbs v. State of Indiana, determining whether an adult who suffered from opioid addiction faced an excessive fine when he had his Land Rover repossessed for drug-related charges.
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from imposing excessive fines and fees. At issue in the Timbs case is whether the prohibition applies to state governments or only to the federal government.
Since almost all youth in the juvenile justice system are in state systems, the case will make a huge difference to youth like Shyara. If the Supreme Court agrees that the Eighth Amendment applies to the states, young people will be able to turn to federal law and the federal courts if local governments seek to make money by fining teenagers and their families.
Fines can be problematic for anyone, but they are particularly burdensome for youth in the juvenile justice system. In every state, youth can be charged fines, fees or restitution, even though they are often too young to work and cannot fulfill the steep financial obligations imposed. Research has shown that these fines increase youth recidivism, push youth deeper into the justice system, place serious emotional and financial strain on families, and heighten the justice system’s already pervasive racial disparities.
Fines also undermine the juvenile justice system’s rehabilitative promise. State juvenile justice systems are based on the understanding that adolescents make mistakes, and that they are uniquely capable of growth and reform. Policies that require youth to pay money they don’t have put stress on families and mire young people needlessly in the justice system.
The Supreme Court should make clear that states and localities, like the federal government, have a constitutional obligation to ensure that fines are reasonable. The excessive fines clause provides a vital protection for individuals faced with harmful state action, and it’s not just for adults.
— Jessica Feierman is the senior managing director of Juvenile Law Center, a national nonprofit public interest law firm based in Philadelphia. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, affiliated with The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.