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National, local advocates celebrate juvenile court fee elimination

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National, local advocates celebrate juvenile court fee elimination

Families in Boone and Callaway Counties with juvenile cases in the 13th judicial circuit traditionally would have various court fees applied.

This included court reporter, clerk, legal services, and inmate security fees upward of $70 for each case. This practice of applying these fees to juvenile cases ended Thursday following a push from national and local groups.

The change is applauded by the Mid-Missouri Civil Liberties Association, or MOCLA, Columbia NAACP and National Center for Youth Law’s Debt Free Justice Project.

“I want to acknowledge that I think the court did the right thing. When I say the court, it’s truly the judges. They made the decision. They deserve credit here for being responsive in a relatively timely manner,” said Dan Viets, with MOCLA.

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More: How Mid-Missouri Legal Services plans to use budget boost to assist more low-income families

National Center for Youth Law first observed juvenile court proceedings in the spring, wrote Derek Hux, deputy court administrator for the 13th judicial circuit. The circuit and Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator provided data to the organization as part of an evaluation. The decision to eliminate fees was made in November.

Juvenile cases are conducted as civil cases and so Boone County was assessing fees based on those types of cases.

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“We were under the assumption that the majority of judicial circuits were doing it the same as us,” Hux wrote. “It was good that the National Center for Youth Law brought it to our attention that we were one of the outliers in this regard, so that we were able to get that corrected.”

National Center for Youth Law approached MOCLA and Columbia NAACP, which sent letters to juvenile court leadership, Viets said, adding it was these groups that were the local advocates for change.

It appeared Boone County was among those with the highest court fees for juvenile cases, Viets added, noting this assessment was based on information received from National Center for Youth Law.

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“That caused us concern because many times the families of children in the juvenile court process are of very limited means and it is a great burden to put on a family,” Viets said. “… We are obviously very pleased the court did what we asked them to do.”

Fees Boone and Callaway Counties no longer will assess on juvenile cases totaled approximately $4,853 in 2021, $6,911 in 2020 and $7,973 in 2019, according to information provided by National Center for Youth Law, which started its Debt Free Justice research in 2021.

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Juvenile court fees generally do not generate revenue for the courts, wrote Angelica Jimenez, Debt Free Justice senior attorney on the Justice and Equity Team.

“It has been found that courts often spend more to collect fees and contract with private collection agencies with little return on this investment,” she wrote. “From 2019 to 2021, juvenile courts in Missouri ordered over $300,000 in fees and have only collected approximately one-third of the fees charged.”

The Debt Free Justice project is a nationwide campaign by National Center for Youth Law to abolish juvenile fines and fees in partnership with the Juvenile Law Center and the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law.

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The work in Missouri is among the most recent, Jimenez wrote. One other success was a Riverside County, California, class-action lawsuit “ending the illegal practice of collecting fees from families who could not afford to pay and reimbursing them for previously collected fees,” she wrote.

More: Heart of Missouri United Way announces $900,000 in grants over the next 3 years for 7 local agencies

The Debt Free Justice project wants to end cycles of poverty for low-income youth. A barrier is juvenile court fees, Jimenez wrote.

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“Youth in the juvenile legal system often do not understand the legal processes and what these fees are going toward,” she wrote. “They risk deeper involvement into the legal system if they are unable to pay these debts. At this stage of their development, they have a greater capacity for change and rehabilitation, which is central to the juvenile legal system and the Missouri model.”

National Center for Youth Law aims to have legislation introduced for the next legislative session of the Missouri General Assembly, which will eliminate juvenile court fees statewide.

“We’ve been working with stakeholders across the state to introduce statewide legislation,” Jimenez wrote.

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This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: How local, national groups eliminated Boone County juvenile court fees

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