The Price of Justice: The High Cost of “Free” Counsel for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

This report documents that the families of children charged with crimes are forced to pay for the cost of legal counsel in all but 10 U.S. states – despite the Constitution’s guarantee that young people who are indigent are entitled to court-appointed counsel. The report explains why free counsel is crucial for juvenile justice proceedings, outlines the many costs imposed for public defenders and appointed attorneys, and details how these costs affect families with justice-involved youth.

To produce the report, the authors analyzed state statutes and surveyed 153 individuals (attorneys for youth and other related juvenile justice stakeholders).

You can read the full report here.

You feel like you’re drowning and you’re trying to get some air, but people are just pouring more water into the pool. –Dequan Jackson, youth

Key Findings
  • “In almost every state, youth or their families must pay for legal assistance even if they are determined to be indigent, either by reimbursing the cost, paying a flat fee, or paying an application or other administrative fee.”
  • “Even when a youth is determined eligible for a court-appointed attorney, most state laws permit or require youth or families to pay administrative fees or reimburse the court.” Almost half of JLC’s survey respondents indicated that defendants were required to pay at least some costs for counsel, even after being deemed indigent by the court.
  • In some states, inability to pay costs for counsel may result in juvenile detention.
  • “A significant number of survey respondents noted that young people waived the right to be represented by counsel because of the fees they or their family members would be required to pay for their attorneys.”

Alabama youth can’t get off of probation until all of their financial obligations are paid in full. As a result, their time “in the system” is often extended indefinitely, while the child and a parent have to attend a monthly “pay or stay” docket to either bring their receipt for payment or face the threat of contempt proceedings. My experience is that a kid who sees no end to her/his court involvement is much more likely to conclude that how he/she behaves makes no difference. –Gar Blume, Alabama attorney


Jessica Feierman, Nadia Mozaffar, Naomi Goldstein, Emily Haney-Caron, Juvenile Law Center