Awake long before the sun and her children, Julissa Soto got used to weeping quietly as she rode the bus to her morning shift at McDonald’s. Reaching home near midnight from a second job as a phone operator, the Colorado mom couldn’t help but ask herself why she was being punished so severely for her teenage son’s mistakes.
Since her then-14-year-old son, Juan, got caught swiping toothpaste over a decade ago, court and administrative fines and fees continued mounting on the single mom’s struggling household, burying her in thousands of dollars in debt. One fee included a $60-a-week class about the consequences of stealing.
“I was in a zombie mode. Working, working, working, paying, paying, paying,” Soto, 49, told The Imprint. “It was like, no ending to the tunnel.” Soto lived like this for seven years.
Soto is just one of many parents across the country clawing their way out of debt from fines and fees their children have incurred in the juvenile justice system, making their family circumstances all the more precarious. Today, a coalition of prominent youth advocacy groups launched Debt Free Justice, a national campaign to protect families like Soto’s by abolishing such court-imposed bills.
The campaign’s website published today provides a centralized location for policy makers and activists to find sample legislation, research and fiscal analyses, and to coordinate efforts. The campaign — led by the The UC Berkeley law school’s Policy Advocacy Clinic, Juvenile Law Center and the National Center for Youth Law — aims to build on action taken in California that has wiped away both debt and fees. The campaign is supported by Arnold Ventures and Schusterman Family Philanthropies.
California was the first state to abolish administrative fees in juvenile delinquency cases, following passage of Senate Bill 190 in 2017. Prior to that, the state had allowed counties to recoup the cost of incarceration, probation supervision, legal counsel and drug testing — mandatory bills that then-state lawmaker Holly Mitchell told The Imprint “run counter to the overall purpose of a fair juvenile justice system.”
Last year, California lawmakers went even further, discharging all outstanding juvenile-related fines and fees — a total of $361 million owed by predominantly Black and Latino families. The state also passed Assembly Bill 1869, which halted the collection of 23 administrative fees in the adult criminal justice system, making California the first state to do away with bills for arrest, jail, legal representation, parole, probation supervision and home detention.
The state is now poised to eliminate 17 more fees, under a bill now on Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
“If you are very wealthy and your parents have money, then these things aren’t even a big deal and you can just get out of trouble by paying whatever fee or fine there is,” said Nadia Mozaffar, a senior attorney at Juvenile Law Center and coordinator of the new campaign. “If your family is not wealthy, if you don’t have resources, which is the vast majority of young people that get caught up in the juvenile justice system, then you’re just stuck in this loop of debt or further punishment.”
Across most of the country, fees pile up at every turn for families whose children are entangled in the justice system: penalties for teenage drinking or skipping school, costs for incarceration, representation, restitution, diversion programs, ankle monitors, probation — even “competency evaluations.”
Because youth of color are far more likely than their white peers to be arrested, the financial burden falls most heavily on Black and brown communities. Youth of color serve longer sentences than their white counterparts for the same offenses, even those with identical crime histories.
And the amount parents pay as a result is directly tied to how long they are locked up or under supervision, said Michael Harris, senior director of juvenile justice and legal advocacy at the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law. “Thus, families of color end up owing much more in debt to the system due to the racist way it is run, not due to youth of color committing more offenses.”
Youth advocates who are involved in the debt justice campaign say families should never have to make these decisions, which merely perpetuate a justice system that punishes the poor. There are harsh consequences for failure to pay, including tax refund intercepts and a garnishing of wages.
Harris described one California family that was charged more than $8,000 for their child’s confinement in juvenile hall, fees the family had to pull from its meager Social Security income.
Soto earned $19,000 annually for her family of three when she found herself choosing between buying groceries and paying her electricity bill, or paying the court-ordered fines and fees for her son.
Busy working day and night to maintain their home in the mostly white city of Highlands Ranch, Soto said she regrets not being able to keep a closer watch over her son. A year after his first arrest, he was charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana, and incurred more fines, totalling nearly $8,000.
“I had no idea what his mistake would cost us,” she said. “The damage was not only financial but mental, spiritual and physical.”
Advocates are working across the country to reverse this damage, documented on the Debt Free Justice site.
“When we started this in California, we didn’t think getting rid of fees was honestly possible,” said Stephanie Campos-Bui, deputy director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley. But as momentum built in California, it included not only the expected supporters of youth justice and reform movements, but “a lot of conservative folks” — from judges to probation officers.
“When people sit down to think about it, it’s just a bad practice,” Campos-Bui said.
Since California’s legislation passed, numerous other states have reduced or eliminated fees and juvenile justice fines, including Nevada, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, New Mexico, Virginia, Colorado and Texas. In Louisiana, there were a wide array of proponents, from Ubuntu Village in New Orleans to Chief Judge Candice Bates-Anderson of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. Young people in Maryland whose families were crushed by fees testified in the state capital and helped on phone banking efforts.
Announcing her state’s curb on fees in March, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said: “Nickel-and-diming New Mexico families doesn’t solve anything. On the contrary, it can create a vicious cycle of fee collection and license revocation, all of which serves only to entrap too many New Mexicans in the criminal justice system.”
According to the Debt Free Justice campaign, rather than serving as a deterrent, fines and fees are linked to higher rates of recidivism, undermining rehabilitation goals. They are also “an ineffective and unsustainable revenue source,” the campaign states on its website. “Jurisdictions often spend more money attempting to collect fees and fines from families than they are able to recover.”
In 2019, the ACLU reported that Los Angeles County’s probation department collects less than 4% of fees it’s owed. To achieve that collection rate, it had to spend more than $4 million on staff salaries. New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found similar results, in New Mexico and Texas, where counties spent an average of 41 cents to collect $1 in payment for administrative fees.
“They hurt young people. They hurt families. They make it harder for a young person to break the ties of the juvenile justice system and move on with their lives,” attorney Mozaffar said. And in the end, “they’re not even financially beneficial to the state.”
Those fighting to abolish fines and fees say even if they were efficient at generating revenue for state and local governments, relying on poor families to feed those coffers “creates a perverse incentive” to keep youth entangled in the juvenile justice system. The campaign’s coordinators are hopeful that more states will join the movement and say they have not received any organized opposition to their efforts.
At the time Juan stole the toothpaste, Soto said, “we were really, really poor.” She said that didn’t justify his actions, but she thought the store owner would cut her son a break, show him some empathy instead of calling the police.
“Usually, kids steal candy, cigarettes, but not toothpaste. If you’re stealing toothpaste, things must really be bad,” she said.
She wished someone would have met her son with curiosity and compassion, instead of punishment.
Soto has since become an advocate for families like hers, and testified in July before the Colorado Legislature as it considered reducing court fees for youth and eliminating millions of dollars in outstanding fees.
Although she felt “punished” by her son’s decisions and the financial relief comes too late for Soto, she and her son, now 31, are working to rebuild their relationship — and she is gratified to see some changes in her state.
“I feel happy about the progress that we made in Colorado,” she said, “but I am not satisfied because there are many states that are not even there.”