By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — Juvenile offenders might see their financial load lightened, thanks to new legislation approved by the state House of Representatives that would eliminate the rollover of court fees on them and their families.
The legislation would scrap the court’s ability to charge juvenile delinquents or their parents fees related to their trial and conviction.
“This doesn’t take away their responsibility to whatever they did. What it does is — it doesn’t push them down further into a hole of financial debt,” Rep. Walt Blackman, a Republican from Snowflake and the sponsor of House Bill 2033, said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Jan. 26. Blackman is a longtime proponent of criminal justice reform.
Under existing law, juveniles can be billed for court-appointed attorneys and court-ordered counseling or treatment programs. They may also be forced to pay for food, clothing, shelter, supervision and medical or mental healthcare costs incurred while in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Corrections. Even foster care, if the judge deems it necessary, is added to the bill.
Not all fees are standardized across the state, and totals can climb into the thousands. Attorneys fees are especially prone to being expensive. Chris Phillis, a defense attorney who has practiced in juvenile law for 29 years, said she’s known judges who assessed her clients $450 per petition — and she’s had clients with as many as nine petitions.
Detention fees are also big ticket items. Kids are held in detention between court hearings after their initial detainment, which generally lasts between 14 to 30 days. Detention fees range from $70 to $120 a day. Phillis said some are held for as many as 100 days and face staggering fees.
If kids are determined to be financially unable to pay the fees, the bill is passed onto their families, who are often also struggling economically. A 2018 report from the National Juvenile Defender Center estimated that 90% to 99% of Arizona families and youth in delinquency cases meet the standards for indigence. Straining family budgets with court fees makes it harder for families to pay for basic living necessities and may even cause relationships to deteriorate.
Once sentencing and probationary requirements are completed, juveniles can apply to have their records destroyed — but the process stalls if the fees are unpaid. When the child turns 18, those outstanding bills become a civil judgment, and young adults hoping to restart their lives must pay them if they want to move forward.
“When you’re 18 years old, you don’t have two quarters, let alone thousands of dollars to apply towards civil penalties and assessments you may have gotten levied against you when you were 13,” Phillis said.
A criminal record — even one earned as a minor — can have far-reaching impacts. Car loans and even some school loans are affected by credit reports with a civil judgment attached. Employers must be told about the juvenile offense, and callback rates for applicants with criminal records fall 60%, compared to applicants without them. This only increases the difficulty they already face in wealth creation; young adults with previous juvenile convictions experience a decline in future income. Even rental applications have higher rates of decline when criminal records are involved, and parents often can’t afford to co-sign.
“We’ve handicapped the child before they even had a chance to get going,” Phillis said.
Ensuring that kids are no longer on the hook for court fees and that expunging their records isn’t dependent on paying those fees means a potential reduction in recidivism. It improves their future employment, housing and healthcare outlook and contributes to public welfare by avoiding costs to taxpayers when individuals return to the criminal justice system.
The bill was approved on a 58-1 vote and now heads to the Senate.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.