NyKia Watkins has been paying court-related fines and fees since she was 15. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
NyKia Watkins has been paying court-related fines and fees since she was 15. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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The moment a case is filed in juvenile court, the dollars owed rack up. 

There’s a $34 docket fee. Sedgwick County can tack on a law library fee up to $14. Kansas does appoint an attorney for free, but for any following casework the attorney can charge a “reasonable fee,” a number not specified in state law. 

NyKia Watkins said she paid over $1,500 in court fines and restitution while incarcerated at the Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka. She was 15.

Both her parents died while she was incarcerated. Still a minor, she was eligible to receive her mother’s Social Security survivors benefits. 

The Kansas Department of Corrections took that money to pay for Watkins’ incarceration. 

“If we’re including all the money they took from my mom’s security,” Watkins said, “they probably took over $20,000 from me.” 

Kansas juvenile court fees pile up

Watkins, now 20 and under house arrest in Wichita, said she pays about $135 a month for her GPS ankle monitor. 

“I also pay for (urinalysis) fees,” Watkins said. “You got to go in there, pee in front of your probation officer, then you pay the $13.” 

An assessment from the National Juvenile Defender Center found that “several stakeholders reported that youth and families are charged $400 for each urinalysis or other drug screening,” and that Kansas law allows for such a charge on laboratory services.

Dante Bristow, 22, pays a private company $42 a week for his ankle monitor. He said a juvenile court categorized him as a flight risk.

The authorities “felt like I was gonna run back to Ohio,” he said. He lived in that state for about a year and half but now lives in Wichita. “They sent Kansas sheriffs to get me. Flew me on a private jet that I had to pay for. It was scary — I was in shackles and everything.”

Dante Bristow is passionate about reforming the juvenile justice system and addressing the court fees that juveniles face after their confinement. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Nichole Lee is a campaign manager with Progeny, a Wichita-based juvenile justice advocacy group, where Watkins and Bristow are both youth leaders. She said there is no cap on the amount of fees youths can be charged in Kansas. 

“Families can be charged for child support if their child is in custody,” she said. “We also have a few youth leaders that now have GPS monitoring bracelets. They pay for those, their own drug testing and their own counseling.” 

Kansas is one of five states with laws that allow juvenile courts to charge young people for confinement, counsel, court, evaluation, expungement, fines, probation and restitution. 

Research suggests the judicial financial burden on young people increases the likelihood of them reoffending as well as reaffirms racial and economic inequalities. These fees can perpetuate youths into increasing their debt and exerting additional costs on the system. 

Courts regularly contract with private agencies to collect outstanding debt from young people involved in juvenile court. Kansas allows the agencies to tack up to 33% onto the amount due.

A court-ordered drug and alcohol evaluation can cost at least $150.

Judge Patrick Walters, who presides over Division 14 of the 18th Judicial District Court in Sedgwick County, said drug testing and the fees for it during probation are decided post-conviction. He said the costs are dependent on a person’s level of probation.

A court service officer interviews youths prior to determining probation. There are four levels of probation for young people in the juvenile court system for Sedgwick County. 

Level 1: Youth not required to report to court service officer
Level 2: Considered low risk for reoffending, reports once a month to the officer
Level 3: Determined a moderate reoffend risk, must report twice a month 
Level 4: Evaluated high risk for reoffending, reports to officer once a week 

The court service officers monitor a young person in their community, assessing at-home behavior and fulfillment of education or employment. They also mandate random urinalysis. Fees increase the more often a person has to report to their officer and the more drug analysis exams they must complete. 

For a detailed look at the juvenile court process, here’s a graph from the county.

Before young people are sentenced, they are interviewed during an investigation and scored for risk assessment, and that helps determine parole or probation requirements, Walters said.

He also said the county doesn’t incarcerate youths for missed payments or consider it a probation violation. 

“We don’t put them in jail for nonpayment of costs and fees,” Walters said.

What could happen if a Kansas juvenile court fee payment is missed? 

In 2016, Kansas repealed a law deeming young people ineligible for early release from probation if related fees were unpaid. Nonpayment no longer prevents the end of probation, but Bristow said he’s been threatened with incarceration if he doesn’t pay promptly. 

“They threaten to lock me up all the time,” he said. “Even if I get a week behind.”

Watkins currently pays for both a juvenile and adult probation officer — one from a criminal case when she was younger and the other from a case where she was tried as an adult. She pays for both of their supervision services and double the urinalysis. 

“I owe about $630 on the adult side of things,” she said. “Juvenile side…probably over $600.” 

Lee said organizations like Progeny can help with these costs. 

“If that means we have to help pay for a monitor this week, that’s what we do,” she said. 

Bristow said he prays every day for future financial relief. “That’s all I can do. (The system) has my life in their hands.” 

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Lugli is a community watchdog reporter at The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.