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Minority children disproportionately suffer from court fees in Virginia

Children caught up in the court system are often harmed by fines and fees that can be extremely damaging to people struggling to make ends meet. And, minority children are disproportionately at risk.

Black teenagers are 2.6 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system than white teenagers, according to court records. Briana Jones at the Commonwealth Institute says that creates a disproportionate burden on young people trying to escape poverty.

"We're asking at a disproportionate rate Black youth and their families to fund our courts basically, and that's unfair," Jones says. "So, it's not as much of a putative measure as people think it is."

She says eliminating court fines and fees for juveniles could be a key step in helping families in need. Phil Hernandez at the Commonwealth Institute says one of the best things lawmakers can do is lowering the statute of limitations on court debt.

"The debt that you owe can follow you for many decades," Hernandez explains. "In Virginia, it's at least 30 and it can be as many as 60 years. So, thinking about a young person in Virginia who's just trying to find their way and get started and find a career and all of that. And having them saddled with this debt and their families trying to manage it places an incredible burden on entire family systems."

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission has several recommendations for lawmakers on this issue, including the creation of a state-operated system of juvenile public defenders and ultimately reducing court debt for juveniles caught up in the court system.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.