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As thousands of Idaho juvenile offenders remain ‘in the system,’ families are shackled to ‘cost of care’ and collection fees

A graphic showing the cost of care for juveniles in jail between 2016 and 2020.
Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy

In 2021, families of more than 5,600 young Idaho men and women were assessed so-called “cost of care" fees – while the youth were in the custody of the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections.

According to a new analysis from the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, the “system is plagued by burdensome charges and wide disparities in charges, as well as racial inequity.” In fact, one family a Hispanic youth was financially crippled by an outstanding balance of $27,950. And much of that balance was added-on collection fees.

“We are seeing families, especially families with modest incomes who are being disproportionately impacted by these fees and having to make some really tough financial choices,” said Kendra Knighten, Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy associate.

Knighten joined Idaho Justice project director Erica Marshall in a visit with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the little-discussed burden, and a 2022 effort at the Idaho Statehouse to address the issue.

“Unfortunately, these juvenile fees will follow them into adulthood.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. This morning, we're going to talk a bit about justice… juvenile justice… and what more than a few see as an injustice. Kendra Knighten is here and she is a policy associate at the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy and Idaho Voices for Children, and Erica Marshall joins us as well. She is director of the Idaho Justice Project. Let's say good morning to them both. Good morning.

ERICA MARSHALL: Good morning, George. Thanks for having us.

KENDRA KNIGHTEN: Good morning, George. Happy to be here.

PRENTICE: I do know of Cost of Care fees, but I'm embarrassed to say that I had no idea of how much money we're talking about - and we'll get into that in a moment. But this, for many Idaho families, can be a maze at best, and a very dark hole at worst. So let's start, Erica, by helping out our listeners to. Can you give us a sense of how many young men and women are in custody on any given day?

MARSHALL: Sure, George. We know there's a number of children that are involved in the juvenile justice system every year. At any given time, there's roughly 180 children in the care or custody of the State Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections. But much of the juvenile justice system is actually administered at the county level. And so, for instance, in 2021, there were 5,612 that had juvenile fees assessed against them. And so, Idaho Justice Project has really got involved in trying to eliminate these fees for kids that are involved in the juvenile justice system. Because for a lot of these cases, they can go up into the thousands of dollars, and that's just money that a lot of Idaho kids and families don't have.

PRENTICE: And when you say thousands of dollars, is that because of the length of stay? Is there an average length of stay for these young men and women?

Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy

MARSHALL: The fees that are assessed against kids in the juvenile justice system can be for things like detention costs and the cost of care fees that are assessed against the state, like you mentioned. But the fees, that's just really the beginning. Children can be asked to pay back the cost of their public defender there. They can be assessed costs for a $20 training academy fee that's assessed as a mandatory fee. In each case, they're asked to pay for probation costs each month, up to $75. And so for mental health assessments and sort of, unfortunately, the list goes on and on in Idaho about the fees that can be assessed against kids and their parents.

PRENTICE: Kendra Knighton, when we're talking about these fees, in essence, we're talking about the burden on the families of these children.

KNIGHTEN: So, at the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, we've done an analysis on data that we've collected from the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections related to cost of care fees and then also some of the fees collected by the counties throughout the state. And something that we've seen is that, you know, the amount of fees that are coming into these various agencies that can be used to supplement the budgets. These fees really make up just a very minuscule amount of those total budgets, whereas when you look at those individual fees and how much they actually take up of an overall household budget, then you see a disproportionately larger impact on families when they have these fees assessed against them. So overall, we are seeing families, especially families with modest incomes who are being disproportionately impacted by these fees and having to make some really tough financial choices as a result of them.

PRENTICE: And to that end, the first thing that jumps out on this, is the burden on families of color

KNIGHTEN: Within the data that we receive specifically from the state related to the cost of care fees. We did see that there was a significant disproportionate impact between youth coming from white families and youth coming from families of color. For example, despite making up only about one percent of Idaho's total youth population, black youth accounted for over 3.6 percent of the fees collected over the five-year time span that we collected data for, and Pacific Islander youth, in particular, had the highest average outstanding debt per case at almost $4,000.

PRENTICE: Can you give us a real-world sense of what a family's burden might be? Do you have an example or two?

MARSHALL: He has outstanding balance that we found in our analysis was a staggering $28,000 owed by the family of a Hispanic youth.

PRENTICE: Ok, so we know where this is heading, literally and figuratively - and that is collections. And that's a big part of this burden, right?

MARSHALL: Absolutely.

PRENTICE: Talk to me about that.

Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy

KNIGHTEN: Yeah, George, you're absolutely right. For a lot of the kids, when they can't afford these juvenile fees that are assessed against them, they're unfortunately these juvenile fees will follow them into adulthood. And so what we're seeing is that there are literally thousands of Idahoans that right now are stuck in debt because of fees that were assessed against them when they were in the juvenile correction system. Right now, there's over 198,000 cases where people still owe outstanding juvenile court debt. And for a lot of these kids, that means that they're being sent to collections by to collect those fees, where a collection agency is assessing an additional cost of up to 33 percent on top of the fees they owe. And then there's other issues that impact them as well. A lot of the counties will go and try to collect these outstanding court debts through doing criminal contempt hearings. And so you might have a child that was assessed fees, who is now aged into the adult system and is still being called into court in a criminal contempt hearing for collection of these of these fees that were assessed. And so this is really why we've gotten involved in this issue. We're seeing a lot of kids where they're they enter the system as juveniles and really have a difficult time escaping those criminal legal system, even as adults for things like these outstanding debt. And so for that reason, one of the ways that we can really go back to focusing on our juvenile system as being restorative is to, yes, hold the youth accountable for things like restitution, to make the victims whole. But when it comes to assessing additional costs outside of that, for these court fees and system fees, that's an area where we don't think that it makes actual sense to be continuing to do that because it's really trapping a lot of kids in the justice system for a long period of time. And it just continues to cost us money as taxpayers to keep them stuck in that system, really for something that's related to finance and not necessarily public safety.

PRENTICE: And Kendra, this is where it doesn't make sense administratively. And that is the cost of the collection to the system, to the state, to the taxpayer.

KNIGHTEN: As Erica mentioned, the cost of collecting these fees is quite notable. So related to those costs of care fees at the state level in particular, we found that on an annual basis, the cost of collecting these fees made up about a third of the amounts that they were actually bringing in as a result of collecting these fees. So when I talked about these fees already being a small drop in the bucket of the overall budgets, that small drop has made even smaller by the fact that the cost of collection is eating into that.

PRENTICE: Ok, so I'm looking at… it’s House Bill 500.  And this is currently at the Statehouse. What a hearing, what is, what is the status of this bill and who can give me the thumbnail on what this bill would do?

MARSHALL: This is Erica from Idaho Justice Project, George. House Bill 500 is sponsored by Representative Marco Erickson, who is a Republican from Idaho Falls, and he is a big supporter of the juvenile justice system and helping kids and families that are involved in it to become more productive members of society and grow into being great adults. And for that reason, he's really passionate about eliminating fees for kids going through the juvenile justice system. The bill was introduced at a print hearing, and it did go through that print hearing process, and it is awaiting a full hearing at the House Judiciary and Rules Committee. What printing the bill has done is really bring out a lot of the stakeholders and get them engaged in the conversation. And so, we're really excited to be working with a lot of the counties, especially the county probation departments, to ensure that when we eliminate these fees for the kids and the families in the system, that they're still having budgets that are strong enough to support really good programing for the kids that are involved in the system again to support that restorative and rehabilitative goal of the juvenile system. And so this year, we're using the rest of this session to hear from all of the county officials about what sort of lost revenue they might have. That might not be reflected in some of the data that we have about the county budgets that we got from the Idaho Supreme Court so that we can work with all the stakeholders to get this bill through. If not this year, then the next legislative session

PRENTICE: And when and if that hearing occurs, can we expect either or both of you to testify at that hearing?

MARSHALL: This is Erica, and I will definitely be at that hearing, and I will be so excited when we're able to get this through. And I hope the same is true for Kendra.

KNIGHTEN: This is Kendra, and yes, that is true.

PRENTICE: And would you not agree that it would help to put a face and a voice to this, which is to say, an Idaho family, maybe someone who's aged out of the system because it appears as if there's more of them with every passing day?

MARSHALL: Idaho Justice Project has been working a lot over the past six months to find some of these families who have been impacted. And you know, I guess unfortunately, I can report that we've been speaking with a number of families who have been impacted by these fees. One person in particular was really active in in helping out with the campaign this year on this issue and recruiting other families so that we can make sure that legislators hear their voices. One of the goals with Idaho Justice Project and launching Idaho Justice Project is really to bring the voices of people that have been impacted by the criminal justice system to the table as we work on solutions to improve it. And so, you know, we are really hopeful and excited for lawmakers to have the opportunity to hear a lot from these people that have been impacted by fees.

PRENTICE: She is Erica Marshall, executive director of the Idaho Justice Project, and she is Kendra Knighton, policy associate at the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy and Idaho Voices for Children. Consider this on our radar officially.  And thank you so very much for giving us some time this morning.

MARSHALL: Thanks, George.

KNIGHTEN: Thank you so much.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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