A key provision of the legislation, which will have hearings tomorrow in the Maryland House of Delegates and next month in the Maryland Senate, would end the practice of charging indigent youth and families for the cost of public defenders or court-appointed attorneys. This should be a no-brainer. In the landmark 1963 decision “Gideon v. Wainwright,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that courts must appoint lawyers free of charge for individuals facing criminal charges who could not afford them. Just four years later, in “In re Gault,” the court extended this right to children, emphasizing that it was particularly important for youth, who need the “guiding hand of counsel” to navigate the complexities of the juvenile justice system.
Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, under current law, court-appointed attorneys for children in Maryland come with a price tag. Even when the courts appoint counsel because young people and their families are indigent, families may still receive a bill.
Creating monetary barriers to representation erodes children’s right to counsel. Young people almost always lack the financial resources to pay for legal representation; even if they can work part-time when they aren’t in school, their earnings are minimal and typically derived from low-wage jobs. It is also unfair to condition young people’s access to attorneys based on their parents’ ability, or willingness, to pay costs associated with appointed attorneys.
Public defenders around the country report that young people faced with these costs too often waive their right to an attorney or plead guilty to avoid the financial burden. One 13-year-old waived his right to counsel after his abusive father refused to pay for a public defender, and appeared on his own, unrepresented. Forcing children to choose between lawyers and debt creates an unfair system of income-based justice. These financial obligations also put youth at risk for yet more justice system involvement: Children who forego legal representation because of the cost are at heightened risk of incarceration, probation and other system involvement.
Under the proposed legislation, youth and families would also no longer have to pay court administrative fees or support costs for incarcerated youth. This too is a vital step forward. These financial obligations typically place stress on families without providing any benefit to the county or state. Parents have explained that such costs require them to choose between buying basic necessities like groceries and paying court costs. Grandparents have considered relinquishing custody just to avoid costs. The increased economic burdens cause emotional stress within the family at the time when parents need to rally around and support their children. At the same time, local governments may invest as much, and sometimes more, in collections and administration as they gain in revenue. Eliminating these costs puts the emphasis back on supporting families who need it.
The legislation would also eliminate the practice of imposing fines on youth. This makes perfect sense. Teenagers generally don’t have access to the jobs that they would need to pay fines. Imposing impossible conditions on young people works against the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system. In fact, research shows that when young people face financial obligations in the juvenile justice system, they are more likely to reoffend later.
Because of pervasive racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, all of these costs are typically most heavily borne by children and families of color. Research has shown that youth of color are more likely to enter the juvenile justice system than white youth for identical behavior. Thus they, and their families, are more likely to be saddled with court costs than their white counterparts.
We urge the Maryland legislature to lead nationally on this issue and pass the bill into law to ensure that all youth, particularly youth of color and those with limited financial means, receive fair trials and equitable treatment in the juvenile justice system. In a fair system, access to justice must not depend upon access to wealth.