Opinion | Free Michigan’s young people from unjust debt

This has been a year unlike any other for Michiganders— and one that may ultimately be remembered as a turning point for long-needed changes. One desperately needed change, which has become increasingly urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and growing national discourse about anti-Black racism, is reform of Michigan’s juvenile court debt system. 

We have called on the governor and state Supreme Court to stop the assessment and collection of juvenile court debt for the next year, with a hope that this system will ultimately be eliminated in our state. Here’s why you should join our urgent call to action.

Jason Smith and Atasi Uppal

Jason Smith is the policy director for the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, a nonprofit organization committed to creating a fair and effective youth justice system. Atasi Uppal is the senior policy attorney for juvenile justice and education at the National Center for Youth Law, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged children and youth.

The juvenile court system in Michigan is able to charge youth tens of thousands of dollars for their involvement in juvenile court, and those fees can follow them long after they leave the system. For example, a young person who commits larceny — the most common youth crime in Michigan — at the age of 14 can amass bills for costs like detention fees, electronic ankle monitoring, probation supervision and community service. A single night in a detention facility will cost that individual more than a one-night stay at a four-star hotel in Detroit. 

While a youth’s family may strive to pay what they can afford, most of the money is likely still outstanding when the youth ages out of the system. That debt can reduce a youth’s credit score, form a barrier to student loans for higher education, and prevent them from buying a home as an adult.  Meanwhile, some of Michigan’s poorest families have reported having their paychecks, tax returns and even their stimulus checks garnished because of their inability to pay back the debt.

In Michigan, Black youth are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system at every decision point – arrest, detention and confinement, according to a study by the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice. That means these court fees have an outsized impact on Michigan’s Black families.

Proponents say youth owe the government a debt for the money it has spent to arrest, process, prosecute and punish them. They also say the costs compel families to have “skin in the game,” meaning that without court debt, these families would not otherwise support their children’s rehabilitation.  These arguments ignore the fact that burdening youth with debilitating court debt does more harm than good. Youth who accumulate court debt are more likely to commit crimes in the future and experience significant emotional stress because of the strain of the financial obligations on their families.

Furthermore, youth in Michigan’s juvenile delinquency system already pay a significant debt by being subject to government supervision and incarceration at a young age. Youth in the juvenile delinquency system are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to experience adverse physical and mental health outcomes.

Michigan should stop the assessment and collection of these fees, and move toward long-term reform. California, Maryland, Nevada and New Jersey have all taken legislative action to eliminate juvenile court fees or fines. In 2021, legislators and advocates in at least seven other states are collaborating on legislative solutions to address this stain on our justice system. Michigan cannot be left behind in this growing movement for economic and racial youth justice.

It’s time for Michigan to reckon with the unjust practice of juvenile court debt. We must put an urgent stop to these fees at a time when Michigan families – particularly Black families – are struggling to make ends meet. And in the near term, we need common-sense trial court funding that takes the burden of court costs off the backs of our most vulnerable youth.

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Comments

Rev. Joseph H. ...
Wed, 11/18/2020 - 11:54am

Really helpful editorial. Thank you both!!