May 24, 2023

Being in juvenile court can cost thousands. A new Indiana law will change that.

A new law that will go into effect this summer will eliminate some costs and fees in juvenile court for those who cant afford to pay them.  - Eric Weddle/WFYI

A new law that will go into effect this summer will eliminate some costs and fees in juvenile court for those who cant afford to pay them.

Eric Weddle/WFYI

A new law that will go into effect this summer will eliminate some costs and fees in juvenile court for those who can’t afford to pay them.

House Enrolled Act 1493 passed out of the Indiana General Assembly this past session, and was signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb on May 1.

Youth and their families can be charged for costs such as having a public defender, being placed in residential treatment or being detained in a Department of Correction facility. Costs vary for each child, but the payments can be significant – totaling hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Under current Indiana law, the court presumes that parents are able to pay these costs.

Now, HEA 1493 will place the burden on the courts to prove that families are able to pay the fees. It also removes the obligation to pay for a public defender. The new law additionally applies to some services for youth in the custody of the state’s Department of Child Services.

The costs will likely be absorbed by county public defender funds. Less money will also go to the state agencies that provide juvenile services. Officials said that already, many of the charges are not ultimately collected from families.

Part of a larger effort

The bill was authored by Rep. Wendy McNamara (R-Evansville). McNamara has been working on juvenile justice related legislation for years, including HEA 1359, which passed last year. It created multiple reforms, including not detaining children under 12 years old when possible.

Former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David chairs the Youth Justice Oversight Committee, which was established after HEA 1359 passed last year to oversee the reforms being implemented.

David said while the new legislation targeting costs and fees in juvenile court was not an effort of the oversight committee, it is an issue its members are passionate about addressing.

“We're trying to rehabilitate the children, trying to get their life back on track, trying to reunify them with their family, and we shouldn't be injecting this – this other drama and potential trauma – into that mix,” he said.

Lawmakers have also tried to address the lack of consistency in how juvenile issues are handled across Indiana’s 92 counties. Regarding HB 1493, McNamara said some counties in the state charge much higher fees than others – and that some counties were also more aggressive about collecting these fees from parents.

One individual’s experience

Dontia Dyson was pulled out of class by police when he was in seventh grade for having outstanding fees related to his juvenile case.

Dyson testified about his experience to lawmakers during the legislative session as HB 1493 was moving through the General Assembly.

“As the police officer took me into the hallway and searched me, the bell rang, and everyone saw,” Dyson said during a house committee meeting in February. “It was my worst nightmare come true, and at that age, the embarrassment of that day followed me around for years.”

Dyson said he and his mother were unable to pay the fees. Eventually, a judge dropped the costs. However, Dyson said his peers never saw him in the same way again.

“Expensive and unaffordable fines and fees do not teach kids that they have a future,” Dyson said. “It takes small, petty crimes to hold these kids hostage. It sends a message to the kids, especially whose families who cannot afford it, that mistakes that are made will follow you forever.”

A system intended to rehabilitate, not punish

Those who work in Indiana’s juvenile justice system say it is intended to help children, not punish them.

“But putting a hefty fee on top of them perpetuates the situation,” McNamara said.

Many youth impacted by the justice system are children of color. They often come from low-income communities. The current law and the fees it imposes can disproportionately impact these families.

“It goes back to the fact that our system overall – whether it's adults or the youth system – has an element of justice by affordability, by financial means, and that's just simply unfair,” said Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana.

David said youth in the justice system represent the future of the state, and the focus of the justice system should be to invest in their rehabilitation.

“The focus should not be worrying about or imposing costs on the parents for having the children in the system when the parents cannot pay, and have no reasonable likelihood of being able to pay for that reimbursement in the future,” he said.

Some, like Joel Wieneke, a senior staff attorney with the Indiana Public Defender Council, say the new legislation is a step forward – but it doesn’t cover all costs that exist in the juvenile justice system. Even after this new law goes into effect, some families can still be charged for costs associated with probation services and secure detention in county juvenile detention facilities.

“I think this is a small improvement, that will lessen the overbearing impact of the court system on a family in crisis,” Wieneke said. “And not only that, but will help spread out the costs of juvenile courts, to the entire community of the state, which is really who benefits from the rehabilitation of these children.”

HEA 1493 will become law on July 1.

Contact WFYI criminal justice reporter Katrina Pross at kpross@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @katrina_pross.

Pross is a Corps Member of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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