Michigan lawmakers vote to end most juvenile court fees, citing harms
- Michigan lawmakers approved bills ending most court fines and fees levied in juvenile courts
- It was part of a larger overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice system
- The bills’ passage follows Bridge reporting on how some counties pass the costs of juvenile detentions onto families, leaving many in debt
Michigan lawmakers gave final approval to a series of bills overhauling the state’s juvenile justice system late Wednesday evening, including legislation that would eliminate most court fines and fees currently levied on youth and their families.
The legislation, which will now head to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her signature, would keep mandatory crime victim payments and restitution, but eliminate most other references to fines, costs and assessments. They were passed with little debate as lawmakers rushed to finalize a slew of Democratic priorities before the Legislature adjourns for the year. The bills’ passage follows recent Bridge Michigan reporting on the financial burden fines and fees impose on juvenile offenders and their families.
If the bills are signed, Michigan will follow in the footsteps of several states that have eliminated some or all juvenile court fees, including California, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey and New Hampshire.
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Advocates have said eliminating the fees would ease the burden on families of youth in the criminal justice system, many of whom face crushing debt from their childrens’ stays in juvenile detention or other court-ordered costs.
Little data is publicly available on the collective debt currently owed statewide, but a Michigan Center for Youth Justice review of 74 of 83 counties found $28 million in fees had been assessed between 2017 and 2019.
A separate report from the National Juvenile Defender Center that reviewed 10 Michigan counties found that most have millions of dollars in outstanding unpaid court fees that are kept open indefinitely, in some cases pertaining to children who are now deceased.
While investigating Michigan courts’ current policies, Bridge spoke with families that owed thousands of dollars in fines and fees. One father, Macomb County resident Ernest Bracanovic, at one point amassed more than $100,000 in debt before the county began clearing past juvenile court debts in late 2021.
“Whatever I was paying, it just kept coming,” Bracanovic, 39, recently told Bridge. “It's just like a hamster: always working, running in a wheel. You’re always doing something, but you're always in the same spot.”
Macomb, along with Wayne and Washtenaw counties, have done away with most court fees for juveniles voluntarily, though judges in other counties still have discretion to levy fees on court-ordered drug tests, counseling, probation and more. The most expensive cost for most families is detention, which can cost between $100 to $300 a day.
Critics of the bills have argued the changes could add additional cost and administrative burdens for courts and places the cost of juvenile cases on taxpayers. During recent Senate debate on the bills, Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, predicted eliminating the fees “will have a substantial impact on court budgets.”
But the bills have seen broad support from court officials, law enforcement and youth rights advocates, who argue policy shifts would help better tailor services to juveniles’ individual needs and remove the pressure from families worried about paying the bills.
Nicole Faulds, juvenile division administrator in Macomb County’s 16th Circuit Court, told Bridge the county barely broke even after paying for debt collection services to seek payments, and the threat of additional fees prevented families from seeking help.
Local governments got on board because under the new legislation the state will pick up more fees. Michigan, which now splits juvenile justice costs 50-50 with counties, will increase reimbursements to 75 percent for community-based services and in-home care under the bills.
An analysis by the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency estimated the change would increase state costs by about $16 million and reduce county costs by $10 to $13 million once the legislation is fully implemented.
It’s unclear how much the loss of future fines and fees will cost counties, the agency determined.
Other bills included in the juvenile justice package would require evidence-based risk and needs assessments to be completed prior to any minor’s disposition hearing, prioritize diversion programs over detention when possible and increase access to indigent defense options.
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