Debt-Free Justice

Across the U.S., many jurisdictions charge administrative fees to offset the cost of juvenile offenders’ legal representation, detention, and probation supervision. Typically, the financial burden of a young person’s justice system involvement falls to his or her parent or guardian. In theory, these fees could increase family debt, stress, and conflict— ultimately compromising young peoples’ support systems and other protective factors against delinquency. In reality, little is known about the impact of fees on young peoples’ recidivism or their families’ financial health.

In 2018, California became the first state to repeal county authority to charge parents and guardians administrative fees for their children’s involvement in the juvenile justice system. This repeal offers a unique opportunity to rigorously study the impact of these fees on youth and their families. Our project will assess the impact of California’s recent fee repeal by obtaining administrative data on a pre-repeal and post-repeal cohort of youth on probation and their families, and using sophisticated techniques to statistically compare the outcomes of pre- and post-cohort groups. The study will focus on whether the fee repeal affected recidivism and families’ financial health. Results will help inform policymakers in other jurisdictions that assess juvenile fees.