Big News: Department of Justice urges courts to stop charging fines and fees

Today, the federal Department of Justice issued guidance to local and state courts around the country to stop charging fines and fees, which are especially detrimental to youth. This is a great step in our collaborative efforts to end this harmful practice and achieve #DebtFreeJustice.

For more information, read the New York Times article or check out the press release from our partners at the Debt Free Justice campaign:

Washington, D.C. (April 20, 2023) – Youth advocacy groups today celebrated the release of a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) “Dear Colleague” letter encouraging states and localities to eliminate fines and fees imposed on youth in the juvenile legal system. The new guidance revises and updates a 2016 letter the DOJ issued regarding fines and fees imposed on adults and a 2017 advisory about juvenile fines and fees.

“Today’s guidance from the Department of Justice recognizes what young people and their families have told us for years: these fees and fines cause harm. They force families to choose between paying court debt and paying for food, clothing, and other necessities. They push children deeper into the juvenile legal system, often burdening them with consequences that last into adulthood. They heighten already pervasive racial and economic disparities.” said Jessica Feierman, Senior Managing Director at Juvenile Law Center.  

The guidance puts states on notice that requiring youth to pay fines and fees is bad policy and may violate the U.S. Constitution. In key provisions regarding youth, the guidance:

  • Recommends that jurisdictions “should presume that children and youth are indigent and unable to pay” fines and fees;
  • Acknowledges that “the imposition of any fine or fee on youth has the potential to be an excessive and unreasonable burden” in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines;
  • Underscores that since youth cannot pay for attorneys on their own, requiring their parents to pay “seriously risks youth being subjected to the unconstitutional denial of counsel”; and 
  • Notes that any alternatives to fines and fees, such as community service, “should be designed to avoid undermining treatment, services, fulfillment of other court-ordered conditions, compulsory school attendance, or educational and vocational attainment.” 

“This new DOJ guidance is grounded in years of research showing that juvenile fines and fees disproportionately harm Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth and families with little or no benefit, financial or otherwise, to state and local governments,” said Jeff Selbin, Co-Director of the Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic. “And it should provide further encouragement for lawmakers in all 50 states to end these regressive and racially discriminatory practices.”

Juvenile Law Center, Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, Gault Center (formerly National Juvenile Defender Center), Fines and Fees Justice Center, National Center for Youth Law, and more than 180 organizations across the country and political spectrum had previously called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to issue this guidance.

“We are very grateful that the DOJ is providing leadership in this crucial area. The guidance should be widely followed, resulting in much improved treatment of Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth and their families,” said Miranda Sheffield, Debt Free Justice Campaign Manager at the National Center for Youth Law.

Juvenile Law Center fights for rights, dignity, equity, and opportunity for youth. We work to reduce the harm of the child welfare and justice systems, limit their reach, and ultimately abolish them so all young people can thrive. For more information about Juvenile Law Center’s work, visit

The Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic pursues non-litigation strategies to address systemic racial, economic, and social injustice. The Clinic supports local and state change campaigns to abolish regressive and racially discriminatory fees and fines in the juvenile and criminal legal systems. 

The National Center for Youth Law is a non-profit law firm that helps low-income children achieve their potential by transforming the public agencies that serve them. NCYL leads high-impact campaigns that weave together litigation, research, public awareness, policy development, and technical assistance.

In 2021, these organizations launched #DebtFreeJustice, a national campaign dedicated to ending the harmful and unjust fees and fines imposed on youth in the justice system and their families.