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June 19, 2023

Juneteenth: Celebrating and working for liberation for our youth

This is a joint op-ed with RISE for Youth, co-authored by Monica Hutchison; it originally appeared in Virginia Mercury.

In recent years, the conversation surrounding the acknowledgment and celebration of Juneteenth has gained traction across the nation. But while we are honoring the end of chattel slavery in America, another conversation has been simultaneously picking up steam in the background: burdensome fines and fees facing young people in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The Commonwealth Institute and RISE for Youth are working with our partners on uplifting this conversation and raising awareness around the impact fines and fees have on our youth and families, especially on Black and Latino youth. 

Many of the youth faced with these costs come from low-income families, and with Virginia’s 30- and 60-year statutes of limitations on court debt, our youth can be stuck with these costs for a lifetime. This creates long-standing harm for children who enter the system and their families, with Black teenagers most often being swept into the youth criminal legal system and therefore facing the greatest financial and family harms.

Throughout U.S. history, juvenile justice policies have repeatedly failed to adequately consider the culpability differences between kids and adults, thus leading to practices and policies that didn’t appropriately treat kids as kids. With youth crime rates declining since the ’90s, juvenile justice reformers are seeking to evolve from the punitive beginnings of juvenile justice.

Fines are intended to function as punishment for the underlying offense. However, most court assessments charged to young people in Virginia are not fines meant to discourage or “punish” harmful behavior, but instead court fees meant to cover costs for operating Virginia’s court system. So if the state isn’t assessing fines for punishment, why are kids paying in the first place? 

Analyses of these fines and fees’ economic and social impacts on Black and Latino teenagers highlight the pressing challenges these children and their families can face. In Virginia, fines and fees are assessed at the highest rates by the courts serving localities with the highest share of Black residents and residents with incomes below the poverty line. While detailed Virginia data on the impact of juvenile court fines and fees by race is not available, there is evidence from other states that Black youth pay the highest amount in fines as a result of courts sentencing Black youth to a greater frequency and duration of average probation conditions than their white peers. 

The high cost of these fines and fees can financially harm a family and alter family dynamics. The financial burden forces families with low incomes to choose between paying for necessities and paying fees. It can also heighten tensions within already strained familial relationships and fuel feelings of anger and resentment.

With the rising awareness of the harm that court-assessed fines and fees can have on kids and their families, organizations across the country are calling for the courts to end this harmful practice and instead step into a new era of true youth justice. Many localities and states are already taking steps toward a more youth-centered juvenile justice system. Five states have completely abolished all fines and fees in the juvenile justice system, with an additional four eliminating juvenile court fees. This year the state legislature in Washington considered a bill that would establish a state-funded restitution program

These are great examples that Virginia can look to on its path to providing meaningful justice for young people and communities. Virginia legislators have an opportunity to make sure that the youth criminal legal system connects young people — no matter what they look like or how much money their family has — to the support and resources needed to reach their full potential, rather than placing additional barriers in their path.

As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, let it also be a time to reflect on the harms that still disproportionately impact Black and Latino kids in Virginia. May the conversations about the harms of fines and fees on our youth become louder and louder. May we not forget our children who are bound to the court system through fines and fees. 

Briana Jones

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