Opinion: The Juvenile Justice System Is Stacked against Poor Families

The Washington Post

By Juliene James 

Navigating the juvenile justice system can be daunting for any family. After absorbing the shock of a child’s arrest, families often face an intricate, pernicious economy of fines and fees, all while making critical decisions about their child’s case. And if a juvenile defendant’s family can’t afford the fees, they may pay a far steeper price: loss of freedom until the debt is settled.

State and local governments have started to recognize the harmful effects of court-related fees, including in California, where lawmakers have banned juvenile justice fees altogether. But little attention has been paid to another form of financial exploitation: fees and reimbursements for court-appointed lawyers.

Though the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that courts must provide lawyers to juvenile defendants, a stunning report from Juvenile Law Center found that 40 states have policies that require or permit courts to charge juvenile defendants — and in reality, their families — for “free” court-appointed lawyers, including public defenders. For those who work in the juvenile justice system, it is a maddening yet familiar cycle.

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