Trapped: How Juvenile Courts Saddle Families with Impossible Debt
Long and lean, with wideset eyes the shade of fossilized amber, Man-Man had always been big for his age—so big, that “even in diapers, he looked like a man,” his mother, Jenny, recalled. “So that’s what I called him. My Man-Man.” But Man-Man did not talk like a man, or carry himself like one. He was a kid, still a junior in high school, often uncertain of himself, a good student but quiet and withdrawn, especially around adults and teachers.
Not long before his 17th birthday, Man-Man was hanging out with friends at a Chicken Shack in Elizabeth, New Jersey, when a pair of cops entered the restaurant and approached his table. As Man-Man’s friends looked on, the taller of the two officers asked him to empty the pockets of his jeans. Inside was a baggie of marijuana and a few prescription pills. Man-Man was handcuffed, loaded into a squad car, and driven to the nearest precinct house.
“I remember them asking me, ‘Well, where did the drugs come from?’ ” he told me in an interview a few months later. “I just said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ ”
Had he been willing to tell the truth—that his friend had slung the narcotics at him after spotting the cop car outside the Chicken Shack—he might have been spared everything that followed. But there were other risks to consider. “Where we live, in Newark, it’s a gang block,” he told me. “You tell on someone, it can go as far as you getting killed. We try to avoid that situation the best way possible. Because we’ve seen people that have told. Now they’re dead.”
Despite the fact that Man-Man had no prior criminal record, a juvenile court judge remanded him for two weeks to the Union County Juvenile Detention Center to await his next court date. A last-minute court calendar postponement made the two weeks four. He was missing classes, missing basketball practices; he was missing his mother and sisters and brother. By the time he finally got his hearing, he was exhausted—tired of sleeping in a noisy bunk room, tired of the shitty meals, tired of avoiding the troublemakers among the hundreds of teenagers crammed into the detention center. He arrived at the courthouse in Elizabeth slumped and bleary-eyed, shackled at the wrists and hands.
His mother, Jenny, and his court-appointed attorney were waiting. If Man-Man was unwilling to give up his friend, the attorney explained, he had just two choices: He could plead guilty, and accept probation, plus a fine of $2,000, plus several hundred dollars in monitoring and supervision fees. Alternatively, he could take his chances and ask for a bench trial. But if he opted for the latter course, Man-Man would be risking a felony conviction and as much as seven years in prison. To Jenny, this didn’t seem like a choice at all. “It was crazy,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘I seen people shoot someone and not get seven years.’ I ended up basically nodding along. As long as it meant my son wasn’t going away, I was going to be fine with it.”
With his mom’s encouragement, Man-Man entered a plea of guilty on both counts of possession. He figured the worst was now behind him. It wasn’t. Instead, within the space of a few months, he found himself locked into a punishing cycle of debt—one that would affect nearly everyone he loved. “Look, we [pleaded] because we had to,” he told me. “Because it was what it was. Then you fast-forward, and look where it got us.”
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the number of youths incarcerated annually in American jails has fallen nearly 60 percent since 2000. And yet in hundreds of jurisdictions around the country, incarceration has been simply been replaced by another system of punishment: hefty punitive fines, typically coupled with court or administrative fees intended to help prop up courts battered by budget and tax cuts. In these courts, a kind of “cash register justice” takes hold. Pay the fine and the fees, and you’re free. Default on either, and the government can garnish your parents’ wages, intercept tax refunds, stall your ability to get a driver’s license—or, in a worst-case scenario, send you to jail.
Unsurprisingly, it is people of color who tend to be most affected by these policies. “Black, Latino, and Native American young people are policed, arrested, adjudicated delinquent, and placed in youth prisons at higher rates than white youth,” says Jessica Feierman, the senior managing director of Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit headquartered in Philadelphia. “They also remain on probation longer. As a result, they disproportionately bear the brunt of fines and fees.” As do their families: Working adults might find the means to pay down their debt, but the defendants tend to be middle or high school students. They are not working full time, and they usually lack the ability to pay their fines and fees. Their debt becomes their parents’, with profound and devastating consequences: I recently spoke to a woman who’d emptied her elderly mother’s meager savings account to cover her son’s $1,000 fine. “Now we’re all broke,” she told me. “What you see over time is that juvenile fines and fees rarely land on individual young people,” says Jeff Selbin, the director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley. “They land on whole families. Whole communities.”
In 2018, when Jenny left the Elizabeth courthouse with Man-Man, she was confident she would be an exception. At the time, she was employed as a manager at a White Castle in Plainfield, on the other side of Elizabeth, making $17 an hour. Her boyfriend, Robert, made $20 an hour driving a forklift at a nearby warehouse. (Man-Man’s dad had been paralyzed in a car accident and needed ’round-the-clock care; he did not provide child support payments, although he did sometimes chip in money from his disability payments.) The Newark apartment the couple shared with Jenny’s four children cost $1,600 monthly. Providing they cut down on unnecessary expenses, they could pay rent and buy food and cover tuition for Man-Man’s brother, who attended a nearby Catholic school. The surplus would go toward Man-Man’s debt.
“I had it all figured out,” Jenny told me this fall, “But everything went wrong. Everything. It was the worst year of my life, no question.” The first domino to fall was the car accident: Crossing the street to the bus stop, she was struck by a passing vehicle and flung onto the sidewalk. She broke three bones, wrenched her ankle, and sustained severe muscular damage to her back and legs. Her medical treatments left her sleepy, and it wasn’t good to be sleepy around fryolators. She took a temporary leave from White Castle, followed by a permanent one.
“Robert still had his job,” Jenny remembered. “But we had Man-Man’s stuff to take care of, and we didn’t want him to end up with a warrant. Some months, I had to choose between rent and the fees.” By autumn, she and her family had been served with an eviction notice.
“I’m trapped. I feel like it, anyway.”
Jenny and the kids went to live in Jenny’s sister’s basement; Jenny found a new job, at Family Dollar, making nearly $10 less an hour than she’d made at the White Castle in Plainfield. Still, it was work, and together with Robert’s pay and her oldest daughter’s salary as a trainer at a different White Castle, the family cobbled together enough for a down payment on a new apartment, in North Newark. Last fall, I visited her there. Jenny looked tired. She sure felt tired, she admitted. A few weeks earlier, Robert had tried to break up a fight between a neighbor and a passerby; he was shot in the hip and stomach, and had been dismissed from his warehouse job. He was waiting for his first check from a victim’s compensation fund. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to die,” Jenny said. “I come home from work, and I’ve walked both ways because I’m trying to save money, and I have to cook, and I’ll just be like, ‘Oh God, take me now.’ ”
In front of her, on a coffee table, was a tall stack of notices from the probation office, bearing Man-Man’s birth name. She picked up one and handed it to me. Past due notice, it read. Your account is in arrears. Jenny said, “They just keep coming. Every week, more and more paper.” She was powerless to do anything about it—she barely had enough for food or electricity. And in the long term, she told me, things were likely to get worse: Until the penalty was paid down, Man-Man couldn’t get a job, couldn’t get his license to help out with family errands. “I’m thinking about applying for a job as a janitor,” he told me. He crossed both arms. “Could be as much as $15 an hour,” he said. Jenny cut in. “But not until you graduate,” she said. Man-Man nodded.
“I’m trapped,” he shrugged. “I feel like it, anyway.”
“Trapped,” Jenny repeated. “That’s exactly the right word for it.”
Ironically for Man-Man and Jenny, one of the first states to pass a bill entirely eliminating fines and financial penalties from the juvenile justice system was their own. (Maryland followed suit last month with a bill that eliminates both fines and fees.) The legislation, signed into law earlier this year by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, “makes it less likely for a juvenile caught in adolescence to spend a lifetime in the justice system, having a major impact on the individual’s life, their family and the entire community,” as one of the bill’s sponsors later proclaimed.
And yet for all its historic import, the new law does not address a number of smaller fees that frequently affect young people. Youth will still have to pay a flat $30 fee to have their record expunged. Parents will still be on the hook for the cost of certain diversionary programs, from counseling to remedial education. And judges will still be permitted to order defendants to pay for drug and disease testing and the cost of their court-appointed attorney.
Moreover, the law does not take effect until October, meaning that New Jersey judges are free—for now—to fine young people as they see fit. Man-Man and Jenny will see no immediate relief: SB 48 has no grandfather clause. Existing debts will not be vacated.
Despite these carve-outs, New Jersey is far ahead of the curve. Juvenile Law Center estimates that as of early 2020, a full 47 states authorized courts to impose fees, fines, or both on youth and permitted them to ask young people to cover the costs of their own confinement or supervision. Twenty-one states can ask young people to pay court administration fees; eight states can require them to pay to have their record expunged. (Many more require the payment of all court debt before a young person can even file the initial request for expungement.) And 39 states authorize courts to compel juveniles to reimburse the court for at least some of the cost of a public defender. (In eight of those states, failure to pay the fee can result in a contempt of court ruling, and thus an arrest warrant, and additional time in jail.) Collectively, the debt is a burden that proves hard to shake.
And the coronavirus epidemic has not stopped courts from angling for their money: As a recent article in the Marshall Project noted, jurisdictions from Louisiana to Arkansas to Arizona have frozen some hearings but continued to demand repayment, no matter the dire unemployment figures. (“The last thing these families should be worrying about, when people are dying or having to show up at essential jobs they can’t do from home, is traffic tickets and administrative fees and filing fees,” one community organizer told the Marshall Project.)
In my own reporting on long-term financial obligations, I have heard an eerily similar description from nearly ever debtor (or parent of a debtor) I’ve met: The money they owe “hangs” above them, and “hangs” over their family, implacable and threatening, impossible to erase. Not with the money they make, not with the size of the fine or the fee. (A pre-COVID report from the Federal Reserve estimated that 17 percent of Americans are currently unable to pay their monthly bills in full; an additional 12 percent would miss payments if faced with an emergency expense of just $400 or more.) “With prison, you’re in and you’re out, and your time is served,” a Mississippi man told me not long ago. “With the paper, it’s forever. The debt chases you.”
For young people, facing adulthood in a deep hole of debt, the problem is particularly severe: Some end up surrendering entirely. Others are sucked back into the criminal justice system, on a kind of repeating loop: Fines and fees, a 2016 paper demonstrated, have a counterproductive effect on recidivism rates—the higher the debt load, the more likely a young person was to end up back in jail.
In recent years, a number of activists, including Jessica Feierman of Juvenile Law Center and Jeff Selbin of Berkeley, have set about proving that making teenagers pay for offenses is far more trouble than it’s worth. A few years ago, Selbin and his clinic students traveled the length of California in an attempt to track revenue from juvenile fines and fees. He was dismayed. “In a lot of the counties we surveyed, 70 or 80 cents on every dollar was going to revenue collection efforts,” Selbin told me. One county, they found, had spent $450,000 to collect $400,000 in debt. In other instances, the probation department was the beneficiary of the revenue, but the costs in collection were borne by other agencies. “What you start to see,” Selbin said, “is that while this may seem like a good way to raise money, it’s not, and that’s even if you’re able to set aside the moral questions.”
In May, Selbin and Feierman co-authored an editorial acknowledging the progress that’s already been made: Philadelphia has stopped charging parents for their kids’ incarceration, as have Dane County in Wisconsin and Orleans Parish in Louisiana; California and Nevada have banned the use of fees in juvenile courts. (Judges in both California and Nevada can still fine young people and order them to pay restitution to their victims.) Still, Selbin and Feierman argued, states could go further, especially now that families are facing a life-threatening virus and possible financial disaster: “Governors should use their emergency authority to suspend state laws and regulations that authorize the assessment and collection of juvenile fees and fines. They can order state taxing authorities to stop wage garnishments, bank levies, and tax intercepts.”
For Man-Man and tens of thousands of other young people, Newark remains a textbook example of how individual debt can ripple outward to affect not just entire families but entire communities. Man-Man told me he had a half-dozen friends in his situation; Jenny knew plenty of women who were struggling to pay down old fines on behalf of their kids. Knock on a door in certain stretches of the city, and you’ll find more of the same.
“It’s just another tax on poor people,” a woman named Wanda told me recently. We were sitting on her stoop, watching the trucks rattle down the street, and Wanda was recounting the store of her son, Matthew, a shy 17-year-old.
Matthew, Wanda explained, had recently been charged with possession of marijuana. This made two offenses in two years: His previous arrest was for trespassing, and he’d pleaded out and accepted a small fine. But the weed charge was different. He was innocent, Matthew assured his mother, and he had witnesses to prove it, among them his 19-year-old brother, Carlos. “I knew Matthew wouldn’t lie to me,” Wanda recalled. “So I said, ‘Good. Let’s fight it.’ ”
But shortly after his arrest, Carlos was gunned down outside of a convenience store in Elizabeth—the result, Wanda believes, of a spat over a girl. Matthew was left clutching his brother’s corpse. Wanda temporarily resigned from her job as a cleaner at an extended-stay hotel to manage the funeral. The bills mounted: a burial plot, a wake, the remainder of the fine for the trespassing conviction. “At some point, you say, ‘I’m exhausted. I just want this to be done.’ And so I didn’t want Matthew to say he did something he didn’t do,” Wanda said, “But it had to end.” In October, Matthew pleaded guilty to the drug possession charge and accepted a second fine.
“How much do you owe now?” I asked Wanda.
She closed her eyes and did the mental arithmetic. “Well, it was a little more than a thousand, but I’ve been doing $20 weekly payments,” she said. “So about 750 bucks.”
“Where does the money come from?”
“Some from my mom. And I’m working again.”
She began to cry. “I don’t have no other choice but to keep trying, because I don’t want to lose Matthew,” she said. “I’ve got him now. I’m not going to lose him. We need each other.’”
Two years after his arrest, Man-Man’s debt remained locked at $2,350. The state can’t charge interest on fines, so the amount hadn’t increased, but it hadn’t shrunk either—Robert was still out of work, Jenny hadn’t gotten the raise she’d been hoping for, and had it not been for Man-Man’s sister, the entire family would have faced a second eviction. “It does make me feel so aggravated because I know she wanted to do college in September, and she was so excited about it, but now she’s pushing it back so she can work,” Jenny said of her daughter. “She’s like me. Me and her, we make it happen. She don’t mind working. She’ll work overnight, six nights straight if she has to, as long as money’s getting made. As long the rest of us are OK.”
In December, I offered to go with Jenny to the probation office and pay the $250 arrears on Man-Man’s debt. The offer was unorthodox for a journalist-source relationship, but Jenny had never once asked for help—more than anything, she told me, she wanted other mothers to know they weren’t alone. And she’d given so freely of her time; she’d taken at least two days off work to speak with me. I knew what the payment would mean: If the arrears were clear, the paper would abate, at least for a while, and once Jenny did get the raise, or find a new gig, she could start up a new payment plan.
Our Uber zig-zagged through the narrow side streets of North Newark, past weatherworn split-levels and abandoned houses, past warehouses ringed with concertina wire and trees stripped bare by the December wind, past an ATM, where I stopped to pick up cash for the arrears payment. Jenny shivered under her coat. She hated the probation office—hated it. “Everyone in there, they so damn angry,” she said. She told me two kids had recently gotten in a fight in the lobby; one had stabbed the other in the stomach. “Man-Man, he knows I don’t want him going anywhere near the place. It’s not safe.” She gazed out the window. “Not safe at all.”
The Uber dropped us in front of a tall brick building. There were four police officers downstairs, manning the metal detector, and six upstairs, where the clerks sat behind pockmarked plexiglass. I understood what bothered Jenny so much about the office. Despite the industrial-strength lighting, the place had the unmistakable air of desperation—of people at the end of their rope. As we watched, a man began pounding on the plexiglass, accusing one of the clerks of misreading the amount he owed the state. “That’s impossible,” he shouted. “How can that be?” A police officer approached. The man raised his hands in a calming gesture and then launched himself at the glass once more, now pounding the surface with his elbows and forehead. Froth built on his lips. Three officers wrestled him to the ground.
Jenny was next in line. She slid the cash quickly through the slot, waited for the receipt, and took off in the direction of the elevators at a half-jog. “I told you it was bad in there,” she said outside. “I told you it was.” On the way home, we talked about her parents, who had come to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic when Jenny was 4. Both parents were now dead, as was one of Jenny’s sisters; her ex-husband, Man-Man’s father, had been in a bad car accident and had lost the use of his legs and one arm. “So many people gone, you know?” Jenny said. “I’ve been thinking it’s time for me to get out of Newark. That’s my process: pay what I owe, and get out of here while I can. I don’t want to be here no more. I gave my share to the Lord.”
We could see Man-Man from halfway down the block; he was standing on the porch, wearing a black parka, the hood pulled up over his ears. “Soon, he’s gonna have no choice but to start working,” Jenny sighed. “I was telling him, a job is a job, and you’re going to start from the bottom, and move your way up. Not everything is going to be solved for you. Not everything is going to be handled for you. But I hate saying it. It’s like the thing with my daughter: You don’t want to ask it, because you want to let your kids be kids. Let them be young. But you need help.” She climbed out of the car, trotted up the front steps, and wrapped her son in her arms.
A few months later, I arranged to FaceTime with Jenny. When she picked up, the image of a small baby filled the screen—Jenny and Robert’s infant daughter. The baby smiled; Jenny smiled. She was in a good mood, she confided, despite the circumstances: She couldn’t go back to work, not with the pandemic raging and a small baby at home. And Robert was in bad shape. His gunshot wound had herniated; he was in constant pain; he was having trouble getting an appointment at any of the nearby hospitals, which were overcrowded with COVID patients. Still, Robert had started receiving money from a victims’ compensation fund, and between those checks, and Jenny’s daughter’s salary, the family had been able to pay several months of rent in advance. “We’ll be good until the beginning of June,” Jenny told me. “Then hopefully I can get back to work.” I brought up Man-Man’s debt. Was she any closer to getting it erased?
“I made a couple more payments,” she said. “But I figure, it’ll be there waiting for me, when I get out of here. It’ll always be waiting.”
Matthew Shaer is an Emerson Fellow at New America and a writer-at-large for the New York Times Magazine. He is working on a book for Metropolitan about the criminalization of poverty.
Co-published with Slate.