Meryem Y. Dede is a debt-free justice staff attorney at Juvenile Law Center, a former Delaware public defender and a coordinator for the Campaign to End Debtors’ Prison. She lives in Wilmington.
This past October, Delaware took a big first step forward in helping families across our state. Last year, Delaware was named one of the worst actors in the nation for tacking fines and fees onto criminal convictions or delinquency adjudications, ranking 47th out of 51 jurisdictions. No more. On Oct. 3, Gov. John Carney signed House Bill 244, making big changes for justice-impacted people around the state by addressing the harmful effects of these fees and fines.
No person, youth or adult, should face different justice system consequences based on their financial status. HB 244 makes major strides in this direction. It ends all fines and fees for children, who by virtue of their age should not (and, sometimes, even legally cannot) be expected to pay financial burdens. Under our legal system’s prior practice, children could be charged fines and fees as a part of a criminal adjudication. This practice burdens families, drives children deeper into the justice system and exacerbates racial and economic disparities in the juvenile and criminal justice system, as well as in the community.
Research also shows that simply owing fines, fees or restitution increases recidivism in children. A 2016 study of over 1,100 juvenile cases in nearby Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, found that children who had financial obligations imposed were more likely to commit a new offense than youth who did not, even when controlled for age, race, gender and type of offense. In addition, the more the child owed, the higher the likelihood she committed a new offense. Additionally, because of structural inequities in the economy, Black children were more likely to finish out their cases still owing money than their White peers. Our system should do everything it can to help young people succeed, not drag them down.
The bill also eliminates several specific fees that were particularly burdensome and ethically troubling. It eliminates a probation and parole fee required before an individual could finish probation. HB 244 also eliminated a so-called “public defender” fee charged only to those whose poverty level entitled them to a constitutional right to court-appointed representation. Finally, the bill ended the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for inability to pay criminal court debts, an illogical and cruel practice that all but ensured people would continue to not be able to pay their financial burdens by making it difficult or impossible for them to get to their workplaces.
Delaware has now eliminated fines and fees for children, but we have further work to do to create true equity for our youth. Currently, law requires most people to pay fees to have their records expunged — a burden that makes expungements inaccessible for those without means, especially young people. This creates barriers to education, housing and employment that are unique to those in poverty. Eliminating or reforming the financial penalties that accompany the criminal legal system, particularly for youth, can keep people out of the court system altogether and keep our communities safer. HB 244 also requires the creation of a task force to provide recommendations for further reform. We look forward to seeing Delaware finish what it started and for all young people in Delaware to be given a chance to succeed.