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Fines and fees for crimes trap young offenders in Michigan's criminal justice system

Mar 13, 2015

Credit Kevin Dooley / flickr

Michigan has been scolding  "you're going to pay for that!" to young offenders across the state for close to two decades. 

This punishment comes in forms traditional to criminal justice: juvenile detention, jail for those 17 and older, probation, parole. Increasingly though, it also means that young offenders must literally find the money to pay a host of costs to courts and sheriff's departments across the state. 

"A lot of this goes back 20 years when we were in a kind of panic about juvenile crime," says  Frank Vandervort, head of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. "Michigan enacted a series of laws that are some of the strictest in the county. And this is one of those laws."

Vandervort says court fees, court fines, and restitution are often unnecessarily harsh towards juveniles and young offenders. It's just one way, he suggests, that Michigan law continues to insist teenagers are as responsible for their behavior as adults although an indisputable amount of scientific evidence and even the United States Supreme Court disagrees. 

His argument for different treatment of young offenders is not borne completely out of a moral objection. Routinely charging even the youngest and poorest offenders between a few hundred and few thousand dollars for a single low-level offense keeps these teenagers in the criminal justice system for long periods of time.

In many cases, these teens must stay on probation until they can clear these financial charges which, perversely, increases the amount of money they owe (many must pay for a portion of that supervision and for drug and alcohol testing standard during probation) and increases the cost to the state.

"$500 in fines and costs ... could be an astronomical sum"

Court fines are costs that are part of the punishment for particular crimes. Fees, on the other hand, are levied to help run the court system. Michigan has passed along the costs of running the court system to offenders no matter how old they are or how much money they have.

Shiawassee District Court Judge Ward Clarkson says these fines shake out very differently for young offenders depending on how much money they, or more likely, their parents, have. "$500 in fines and costs for one person could be a walk in the park," he says. "$500 in fines and costs for another person could be an astronomical sum."

Second chances for some

Michael (we are not using his last name as it could affect his work) is 27 and lives in Ann Arbor in a bright little blue house with a red door. He bought the house about two years ago when he started his current job, and now spends lots of time painstakingly restoring it. He says it's an unlikely reality, as even a few years ago Michael thought he would end up "homeless and on the street, stealing money for drugs." Michael got into drugs early, around age 13. Eventually he started to get into a lot of trouble with police and was in trouble with the law consistently until he was about 21. 

But because his family was solidly middle class, Michael got chance after chance to turn his life around. "Every chance that you really need to get yourself out of that cycle I was given. If you have those things follow you around for the rest of your life, then that can be tough to make any progress," he says. 

Access to money allowed Michael a lawyer whenever he needed one. It also meant his fines and fees were always paid. Looking through his old juvenile record, Michael explains one of his first offenses, at age 15, shows up on the record as joyriding. But what really happened, he says, is that he was drunk and stole a car. "Yeah. That’s right. And I crashed it too!" He says, somewhat incredulously.   

"And I don’t see an exact figure there on restitution but I know there was some," he continues, looking through the records. "And I do see court fines and right next to that it says court fines paid-credit card. I was 15, I didn’t have a credit card, so most likely that was my dad who paid that off right away."

Despite a lot of run-ins like that, Michael has been able to move on and become a clean and sober taxpaying homeowner with a steady job.

Trapped by fees and fines

Ritchie is 17 (we are also not using his last name to protect his identity) and is a lot like Michael was at that age. Ritchie also got into drugs really young and has gotten into a fair amount of trouble. Recently, he was convicted of misdemeanor breaking and entering into a home and two cars. He didn't take anything. "I was just ... I was all strung out," he says.

There’s no question young offenders do destructive things.  There are also some who do truly horrible things. Statistically, though only 5% of kids in trouble with the law have committed a violent offense.  At 17. Michigan law does not consider Ritchie a kid. All 17 year-olds in Michigan are sentenced as  adults. That breaking and entering misdemeanor put Richie in jail for 60 days, with adults.

Ritchie was on school release. His dad would pick him up from the county work release center so he could attend school during the day. Every day after school, his dad would take him back to jail. 

While he was in jail he couldn’t do drugs. And, finally, he’s clean. Ritchie is grateful for that, and says he might be dead if not for stay in jail. His teachers say he’s been working hard in school and trying to start over.

But Ritchie can’t get out of the criminal justice system yet. He’s got court fines and fees left over from a petty shoplifting charge from the same month as that breaking and entering charge. He can't pay them.  

The earbuds Ritchie tried to steal from a Walmart are worth no more than $30, but they're costing Ritchie $550 in court fees and fines. Those charges  include costs for probation oversight, his public defender, and his fine for committing a crime. His dad is willing to help pay those costs, but with only Ritchie's mother working, and at a minimum wage job, he doesn’t know how his family is going to find the money. Ritchie wants to get a job, but work is hard to find in the rural community where he lives.

If Ritchie, or any young offender, doesn’t pay these fines, probation can drag on and on until the money is paid. And not paying is a probation violation. That can send these young offenders back to jail. 

Judge Ward Clarkson sentenced Ritchie. Clarkson says he doesn’t want to be harsh with these costs.  

"They don’t really have the means to pay fines and costs," he says of many young offenders. "I understand that. It’s a problem."

But Clarkson has a job to do, regardless of how young or low-income an offender is. 

"What do you do then?" he asks. "Do you just say they don’t have to pay? They don’t get that punishment? I don’t have a lot of answers." 

There aren’t easy answers here. Collectively, we don’t even seem clear about what we want from these young offenders.

How much do we really want to punish them and how much do we want them to change, and start over?