By Laura Cohen and Emilie Stewart
Kevin Reeves has reflected on his inability to pay $2,890 in fines and costs he incurred following a court ruling when he was just 17.
“My life is gone now; sometimes you feel like you are going to be gone forever; sometimes you feel like you can never feel good about yourself.
Four years later, this debt and the other costs associated with his incarceration were still reverberating, compromising his mental health, personal well-being, financial stability and independence.
Luckily for Kevin, New Jersey took a crucial step toward achieving economic justice for young people earlier this year when the state legislature passed and Governor Phil Murphy signed new legislation eliminating fines. and the onerous and compulsory fees imposed on young people tried in juvenile court. These included, among other things, mandatory penalties of up to $3,000 in drug-related cases and at least $2,000 for “false alarm” charges.
These penalties often amount to thousands of dollars, an amount that young people, especially the poor and young people of color, cannot afford because they lack the security of a stable income. If they cannot pay, they are trapped in the legal system.
Under the new law, juvenile courts – which have broad powers to impose a range of penalties on children who break the law – can no longer impose fines, and old debts incurred by young people involved in the courts will be cancelled. Yet there is still work to be done.
Between February and September 2021, Kevin and other affected young people shared their stories with the Youth 4 Justice NJ Camden Youth Council, a youth advocacy group working with several other groups, including the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Social Responsibility Through Me and My Brother’s. Keeper Newark, as part of the Camden Youth 4 Justice NJ Fines and Costs Defense Project.
The central theme that emerged from these conversations went beyond the impact of fines and fees and included the lasting financial, social and emotional damage suffered by these young people.
This is exactly what the juvenile justice system tries to avoid. Court officials have said they want to protect young people from some of the consequences of criminal behavior and address disparities that occur because of a child’s race or ethnicity.
In short, while the system holds young people who break the law to account, it must also provide them with the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and grow into healthy, law-abiding, independent adults.
Kevin’s story reveals the gap that still exists between these lofty goals and the lived experiences of young people who appear in court. Not only are children in New Jersey sentenced to long terms of incarceration or probation, but their names and crimes are often made public, posing insurmountable barriers to employment.
Similarly, court actions can lead to the exclusion or eviction of a young person from public and private housing, leaving young people and, sometimes, their families homeless.
The youth could also have their driver’s license or eligibility to obtain a license suspended, be suspended or expelled from school, barred from military enlistment, and barred from receiving federal student financial aid. For young immigrants, it could also serve as the basis for deportation, often to a country they have no memory or connection to.
In short, a system that was created more than a century ago to protect young people from the ripple effects of criminal convictions now imposes many of those same collateral consequences on our most vulnerable young people.
Worse still, New Jersey, unlike our cohort states, has no minimum age for juvenile court proceedings, exposing even our youngest children to potentially life-changing consequences.
And, because black children in New Jersey are nearly 18 times more likely than white children to be committed despite similar rates of breaking the law for most offences, they disproportionately suffer social and economic harm. that Kevin and others have described with such urgency.
What can the governor and legislature do to finish the essential work they have started? First, they can repeal laws requiring or permitting disclosure of juvenile court records. They can target collateral consequences controlled by state law, such as driver’s license suspensions and expulsion from school.
They can enact laws prohibiting housing and exclusion from employment based on delinquency judgments, to the extent that these are not governed by federal law.
They can change the state’s expungement law to automatically clear delinquency records when youths finish serving their sentences. They can extend the repeal of fines and fees to youth prosecuted in the adult system.
They can and should enact a minimum age of jurisdiction for juvenile prosecution that is consistent with international law to protect our youngest children from these life-altering consequences.
And finally, they must radically transform the entire broken youth justice system by closing our outdated and cruel youth prisons and investing in community services like expanded restorative justice centers.
Kevin Reeves is determined to do what every 21-year-old wants to do: get his driver’s license. Find a good job. Have a stable home. We owe him and all the young people in our state this opportunity.
Laura Cohen is a distinguished clinical professor of law, Judge Virginia Long Scholar, and director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic and the Center on Criminal Justice, Youth Rights, and Race at Rutgers Law School.
Emilie Stewart is a transformative justice advocate and youth advocacy educator.
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