There are two important things to understand about the prison system in the United States: it’s based on retributive justice, and it’s a for-profit enterprise. There’s a reason they refer to it as the ‘prison-industrial complex,’ because the whole system is designed to generate massive amounts of money for power players, including not just private prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America but also vendors and suppliers, politicians, and others who squirm their way into benefiting from the incarceration culture in the United States.
Our prisons are overflowing, and inmates across the US are pawns to be moved around a board. The goal of prison isn’t opportunities for reform and a chance to improve on the part of prisoners, nor does it provide any sort of restorative justice to victims and their families. Indeed, many of the crimes for which people are in prison are victimless, crimes against the state only, with judges forced to apply mandatory sentencing thanks to laws generated by overzealous legislatures and populations. That the prison system is in need of vital reform is indisputable, and the issue is particularly pressing in the juvenile detention industry, which isn’t just deeply broken: it deprives children and teens of opportunities to build their lives, thus creating another generation of people pushed into criminal lives.
When children are sent to jail, though, there’s an interesting twist: their families are expected to pay for it. Many counties assess fees not just for feeding and housing children in prison environments, but also for probation, monitoring, processing documents, conducting investigations, performing drug tests, and more. In effect, children and teens are charged, and pay, twice for the same crimes. They go to prison, and their families have to foot the bill, in a rather absurd state of affairs. We don’t charge families for mandatory public education (except indirectly, through property taxes and other means), yet we do charge them for imprisoned children.
There are a number of problems with this, not least of which is the injustice of juvenile justice. Those sent to jail and prison are typically those who can afford it the least; they are low-income children of colour and disabled children who face discrimination at every turn. The school-to-prison pipeline plays a vital role in determining who ends up in detention, and it feeds on specific children while ignoring others. White children, nondisabled children, and those from wealthier families are less likely to encounter the juvenile detention system, and they’re more able to pay the costs and avoid imprisonment or jail time when they do.
From the start, the system is unfair. It effectively punishes children for coming from disadvantaged backgrounds and minority communities, and then heaps on additional injury by charging families for the dubious privilege of imprisoning their children. Families of children in prison are typically already dealing with a number of issues, and the fees assessed for their incarcerated family members can create considerable financial stress, in addition to being deeply insulting. Charging fees also makes it harder for families to scrape the funds needed for a solid legal defense, something their children need in order to increase their chances of getting a fair shake in court. While it shouldn’t be the case, money talks, and defendants with more money face better outcomes.
Even having your juvenile record sealed costs money, something many people are not aware of. Like other court processes, it requires the payment of various court fees, which may be waived if you can prove low income, but otherwise, you’ll have to pay out of pocket. Since sealing juvenile records is an important step in rebuilding a life after juvenile detention, the fact that people have to pay for this is troubling, as criminal records can affect employment and social acceptance. Adults who can’t afford to seal their records or don’t know how to do it may face housing and job discrimination with far-reaching ramifications for their lives; after all, what do you do when you can’t access legitimate employment, and have trouble finding safe housing?
It’s absolutely absurd that we charge families for imprisoning their children. In no sound world does this make sense — the tradition of charging for imprisonment or services provided in prison may be long-established, but most countries have done away with it at this point. Making adults pay for their own incarceration is ludicrous, and sets up the risk of creating a debtor’s prison of inmates who can’t afford to pay — though, of course, inmates effectively pay for imprisonment by being forced to perform labour at extremely low wages (and sometimes for free). To charge parents and family members for the imprisonment of their children and teens is equally odious, and reflective of cultural attitudes about prison, people accused of crimes, and families.
Should families be punished because a child or teen is in the justice system? Is this really the most effective way to address juvenile crime? Does the United States really want to position itself among the handful of nations that charge for imprisonment, like it’s some sort of luxury hotel stay and inmates should be grateful for room and board? (Keep in mind that juvenile detention facilities, like their adult counterparts, often have overcrowded, substandard living conditions, poor food, and limited access to medical care.) If the concern truly is juvenile crime, recidivism, and family involvement, the government should work on these issues, rather than meting out financial punishments for already disadvantaged and compromised children, teens, and families.
Image: Teenagers, Petra, Flickr.