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SARA CLINE Associated Press/Report for America
Published: 05 February 2021

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — When Siobhan Cancél was 15-years-old she was caught shoplifting a pair of pants in Oregon. After that she quickly learned of the literal price of her mistake in the state's justice system.

She and her mother faced years of financial burden, which Cancél said still follows her to this day, that came in the form of excessive court fees.

“The expenses started to add up immediately. My mom had to take off work for the court date which meant less money in the paycheck.

"Then, the court assigned me a fine in addition to the court fees,” Cancél said in a testimony to the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Ballot Measure 110 Implementation on Tuesday. “Any unexpected expense was devastating to us and it all fell on my mom, who at the time was doing all she could to keep a roof over my head, food on the table and the lights on."

Proposed elimination of fees

During the 2021 legislative session, Oregon lawmakers, are discussing a proposed bill that, if passed, would eliminate fees and court costs associated with juvenile delinquency matters.

“These debts have a lasting impact in terms of following people wherever they go.

"In other words you can start off at a very young age and carry debt for a charge that was committed or act that you were accused of,” Sen. James Manning Jr., a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 422, said during Tuesday's committee meeting. “These debts can follow you for the rest of your life. It can cause great damage when you apply for scholarships, schools and even housing.”

The fees being discussed include court-appointed council, applying for court-appointed council, financial penalties for unpaid fees, electronic monitoring, probation supervision and detention fees, explained Amy Miller, the executive director at Youth, Rights & Justice.

Miller added that some county juvenile departments charge at least nine different administrative fees for, probation supervision is the most common fee, which ranges from $10 to $200 per case.

“These fees place not just a monetary burden but an emotional and mental burden as well," said Cancél, who is a leader of the Lane County Stand for Children Chapter. "Imagine having to choose between electric and food each month then imagine having another bill piled on top that. You constantly worry and are never sure if you will make it.”

Cost of collecting fees

Rep. Janeen Sollman, who is the other co-sponsor of the bill, said that court staff in the state estimates that 90 to 99% of juveniles who go through delinquency proceedings are “indigent.”

"While indigent juveniles and their families are not required to pay in most instances, the process to show that one is unable to pay is time-consuming and uncomfortable for families and is truly an unnecessary burden," Sollman said.

Data, published by University of California Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic, shows that the cost of collecting juvenile fees is increasing while the revenue generated is decreasing. Based on the data, in in 2019, Oregon circuit courts imposed approximately $260,000 in juvenile administrative fees and collected less than $61,000.

Burden heavier on children of color

In addition, Oregon's juvenile court fees fall more heavily on people of color and low-income families, Manning said.

Based on data from Youth, Rights & Justice, Oregon’s only non-profit juvenile public defense firm, out of 1,200 children they represent all of their clients come from low-income families and about 45% are children of color.

Cancél, who is Black, said her debt associated with the court fees was not paid off until she was in college.

Manning said that he believes the proposed elimination of juvenile administrative fees, which have been removed in other states — California, Nevada and Washington — is how “we start to heal the juvenile system.”

Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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