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Juvenile court fees hinder rehabilitation

Arizona lawmakers have an opportunity to help young people avoid falling into a cycle of debt and poverty for mistakes they made during childhood.

I am proud to sponsor House Bill 2746, which will eliminate fees in Arizona’s juvenile system. It’s an issue with broad bipartisan support, doesn’t cost a lot, and will remove barriers that keep young people from turning their lives around.

Walt Blackman

The juvenile court system is supposed to help get kids back on the right track when they get in trouble. But right now, Arizona’s juvenile courts charge children and their parents a range of administrative fees, straining already struggling families and keeping kids trapped in the system.

These fees, which are separate from punitive fines or victim restitution, are charged for a child’s court-appointed lawyer, detention, probation, and court-ordered treatment. They can add up to thousands of dollars for just one case.

Many families simply do not have the money to pay these fees, preventing them from spending on education, housing, and food, or forcing them to take out “payday” loans. Some children have declined legal representation because they worry that public defender fees could cause financial strain on their families, choosing instead to face the court alone. The debt can even follow youth long after their case is over, preventing them from destroying their juvenile records and building financial independence as they transition into adulthood.

A system that is supposed to guide and support kids out of trouble is instead making families go broke and setting kids up for failure later in life. One study even found that owing court costs significantly increased the odds of a child getting re-arrested within two years.  That means that the state and local governments stand to save money in the long run by reducing recidivism.

H.B. 2746 ends this harmful and counterproductive practice by eliminating fees from the Arizona juvenile court system and allowing youth to petition to have old fee debt waived. Courts and counties would receive $2.5 million in annual funding to offset any lost revenue and ensure that our public institutions can continue to provide important services to youth in the system.

Fourteen states, including Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Louisiana, have eliminated some or all juvenile fees. Conservative and liberal groups alike, along with judges, youth correctional officers, and law enforcement leaders, have called for states to eliminate fees for youth.

I collaborated with the courts, the criminal justice reform community, and advocacy organizations that work directly with low-income youth for over a year to ensure this legislation would benefit youth while preserving critical court services. With a surplus in excess of $5 billion, now is the time to dedicate these modest resources toward some of our most vulnerable children, and I hope that HB 2746 will be included as part of the FY 2023 budget.

 

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