A group of Kansas organization seeking to end court fines for children in Kansas are hopeful the Legislature will follow the lead of Texas and Louisiana by amending the law on juvenile fees. (Getty Images)
TOPEKA — A coalition of Kansas organizations are seeking to end the “pernicious practice” of extracting wealth from children and their families through fines and fees in the legal system.
According to the National Juvenile Defender Center, based on juvenile courts that track income levels, the youths’ families have an annual income of less than $20,0000. Fines and fees assessed to children can propel them and their parents into a cycle of involvement with the criminal justice system.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, alongside groups like Kansas Appleseed, Progeny, and Kansas Action for Children, are working to analyze current law surrounding juvenile fines and fees. The organizations hope to craft proposed legislation to abolish this practice in Kansas.
“A person charged with a low-level juvenile offense and who received probation or community service could have hundreds or up to thousands of dollars’ worth of court fees that they can’t pay,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. “What it ends up doing is trapping these kids and their families in this cycle of debt and punishment, simply because of their poverty.”
Kansas levies several different fines, fees, and costs on young people and their families who are involved in juvenile court. The costs cover nearly all interactions with, and services ordered by, the juvenile court.
According to a report on fines and fees published by the Brennan Center for Justice, the practices of juvenile fines and fees often run counter to the goals of rehabilitation. The report detailed evidence showing these fees rarely promoted public safety.
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, described the fines and fees as regressive taxes. He said Kansas has fallen into the trap of funding essential government functions like law enforcement training or the courts themselves through fines and fees.
“Most of us don’t see the effects of imposing fees and fines on children because the majority of Kansans don’t have children who are in the juvenile justice system,” Carmichael said. “It’s important that citizens understand that these things are going on and that they can have terrible adverse effects on children and can get them into a cycle where there’s really no way out.”
Proposed legislation likely will be sent to the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, which Carmichael serves on, when the legislative session begins. The ACLU was confident reforms could gain traction, citing other Republican-led states like Texas and Louisiana working on similar actions.
Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, indicated the idea would get some consideration.
“I look forward to working with the ACLU, Appleseed of Kansas and other interested parties as we evaluate this legislation,” Owens said. “While I am not ready to say I support the legislation without hearing from all stakeholders, I do believe this is a very important topic to consider and welcome the conversation.”
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