Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, a juvenile corrections facility for boys in Golden, is surrounded by a 16-foot fence with anti-climbing mesh. It is operated by the Colorado Department of Human Services. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado lawmakers have a chance to stop the damaging and unproductive practice of charging administrative fees and costs to children in the juvenile system and their families. 

As a state legislator committed to Colorado’s youth and families, racial equity, and economic justice, I’m proud to sponsor House Bill 1315, which would eliminate these fees from Colorado’s juvenile system.

Colorado state Rep. Leslie Herod

When it works well, the juvenile court system can guide kids out of trouble so they can contribute to their community. Often, though, courts charge administrative fees to kids and their parents, piling debt onto struggling families and keeping kids trapped in the juvenile court system instead of catching up in school, learning job skills, and strengthening their ties to the community.

That’s what happened to a child who was arrested in Colorado when he was 14 for property crimes.  Because of the child’s trauma, caused by horrific physical abuse and neglect, the court recognized that treatment, not punishment, was needed to rehabilitate him, and placed him in a therapeutic foster home where he stayed until he was 17. But he was also ordered to pay nearly $2,000 in juvenile court fees, even though he clearly didn’t have the ability to pay. 

When he transitioned from his foster home and began to live independently, he couldn’t get a driver’s license because of those unpaid fees, which meant that he struggled to find work. And without work, he had no way to pay rent. 

This young man was lucky – a private individual stepped in and paid off all of his court costs, helping him avoid homelessness. Once he was able to get a driver’s license, he got a night job at a warehouse, rented a small apartment and is now in his second year of community college, where he’s maintaining a 3.5 GPA. 

But this good outcome is the exception, not the rule.

Eliminating these fees would allow judges to stop acting as cashiers and instead focus on rehabilitating kids and making communities safer. 

Some might say that making a kid pay for their mistake might teach a valuable lesson.  That confuses “fees” (which HB 1315 would repeal) with “fines” and “restitution” (which the new law would not change). Judges will still be able to decide that a kid should pay money either as a punishment or to make a victim whole. HB 1315 would eliminate only administrative fees.

Every parent agrees that if your kid tosses a baseball through your neighbor’s window, she should take responsibility for her actions by doing chores to make up for the cost of a new window. Those consequences would teach her that when you hurt someone else, you have to make it right.  

But imagine that your kid is also asked to pay hundreds of dollars in administrative fees that have nothing to do with the window or making amends.  If she couldn’t come up with that money all at once, she’d be charged even more. And she wouldn’t be allowed to have a driver’s license until those fees were paid, making it very difficult to get a job to satisfy this debt. The only lesson she’d learn is that the court system is arbitrary and its goal is to set her up for failure.

These fees burden entire families, preventing them from spending on education, housing, and food. Many families simply cannot pay, and are turned over to state or private collections agents with catastrophic effects on credit scores. 

In these cases, the systems that are supposed to guide kids onto the right track have instead driven children and their families into the financial ditch.

Not only are fees harmful to kids and families, but research has shown that they also undermine public safety.

A 2016 study found that owing money when a case was closed “significantly increased the odds” of a child getting charged in a new case, and that the more money children owe, the more likely they were to end up back in the justice system.

Fees are also charged unfairly. The cost of justice might depend less on what a kid did and more on where a kid lives. Fees burden kids living in rural Colorado most: While the statewide average of fees charged from 2014-2018 was $300 per case, kids in Logan County were charged more than $1,400 per case. 

Black, Latinx, and Indigenous children are more likely to be caught in the court system than are their white peers, meaning fees also disproportionately burden Colorado’s families of color.

Fees don’t even do a good job of raising funds for the court system. Data from the state Judicial Branch suggests that Colorado spends as much as 75 cents for every $1 it collects. In other words, the state is barely making any money from fees and costs it collects after paying for the actual cost of collection!

The idea of eliminating fees isn’t bold; it’s common sense. California, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia have already passed state laws eliminating juvenile fees, and several others are considering similar laws. 

Colorado should be the next state to end this harmful and costly practice.

Leslie Herod, Democrat of Denver, has represented state House District 8 since 2017 and serves on the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee.

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Special to The Colorado Sun Email: leslie.herod.house@state.co.us Twitter: @leslieherod