National Center for Youth Law

At the Center

Advocacy to advance economic and racial justice for Michigan families gains speed

Michigan legislature has an opportunity to give families relief from oppressive financial burdens connected to the juvenile court system. 

The National Center for Youth Law has partnered with Michigan Center for Youth Justice (MCYJ) to eliminate juvenile court fees and fines for all youth in Michigan’s juvenile justice system. Courts charge these fees for the cost of nightly detention or residential facilities, court-appointed attorneys, probation supervision and programs, and more. Michigan families involved in the juvenile justice system are disproportionately from communities of color. These fees can add up to tens of thousands of dollars; many families have reported total fees over $100,000. These fees are on top of the requirements young people must meet as a result of their delinquency cases, and the unpaid debt follows them long after they have fulfilled the requirements of their case. 

Thankfully, reform of court fees and fines is moving forward in Michigan. On June 10, state legislators introduced a package of five bills to create “debt-free justice” for juvenile court-impacted families. These bills, which have bipartisan support, would absolve both youth and guardians from court costs such as probation, municipal fines and court-ordered services. The  bills are: HB 4987, HB 49889, HB 49898, HB 4990 and HB 4991.

“Eliminating the assessment and collection of fees in the youth justice system is significant because not only are these unaffordable for most families, but the penalties also disproportionately impact people of color,” said Jason Smith, executive director for MCYJ. “This will also allow courts to reduce the number of youths in detention, which ultimately provides better outcomes.”

The introduction of this legislation follows an important county decision last week to eliminate $84 million in outstanding juvenile court debt. After a year-long study of juvenile court assessment and collection practices in Macomb County, MI, the Macomb County Circuit Court’s announced they would stop charging juvenile court fees to youths and their families. The court’s decision immediately stops the assessment of any new fees for the families of justice-impacted youth that the court previously required as reimbursement for detention, residential facilities, court-appointed attorney costs and probation, and clears debt for families facing such penalties. 

“It was necessary for us to evaluate our assessment and collection practices in juvenile cases,” explained Macomb County Court Chief Judge James M. Biernat Jr. “Not only did we discover that we have barely been covering our costs to collect, more importantly, we gained an understanding of how harmful juvenile court debt can be to families and that it can actually be a barrier to treatment and rehabilitation.”

The report Minors Facing Major Debt,” completed by MCYJ in partnership with NCYL and the Macomb County Circuit Court – Juvenile Division, and funded by the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan (CFSEM), details the collaborative process that led to the court’s decision to fully eliminate the assessment of discretionary and waivable fees, which accounted for over 90% of total existing debt.