WASHINGTON — Shyara Hill’s five-year struggle with the criminal justice system started because she hit a boy at school who had been bullying her little brother.
Hill was 16 years old and a student at Upper Darby High School, a Philadelphia-area school with more than 3,500 students. She was sent to the office of a vice principal who never showed up. She says that after hours of waiting, she tried to leave, and that’s when security guards blocked her. When she tried to push past them, they charged her with assault.
“Every time I tried to squeeze between them, they’d say ‘Assault one, assault two,’” she said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to community service and a year of probation.
“They told me that if I just pled guilty to whatever they said I did, I would just have a record and it would be gone when I turned 18. And I wouldn’t have to worry about anything,” she said. “Then I found out that’s not true.”
At 20 years old, she was still on probation. Not because she had reoffended but because she hadn’t paid hundreds of dollars in administrative fees. Most jurisdictions across the country allow courts to charge youths with administrative fees, public defender fees, probation supervision fees, fines, and an array of other charges.
Often, paying these fees is a condition for being cleared from the system. If a family can’t afford the fees, the child can end up trapped in indefinite parole. More parole can mean more supervision and court fees, pushing a resolution even further away. In some scenarios, not paying the fees can even lead to incarceration, according to Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of the Pennsylvania-based Juvenile Law Center.
Because there has been little federal attention paid to the issue, “we just don’t have a really comprehensive sense of how widespread the problem is,” said Feierman, but black and Hispanic youths are believed to be disproportionately affected.
In 2018, California became the first state to ban all fees for incarceration, court appearances, probation, or drug testing. Contra Costa County reimbursed hundreds of people who had paid such fees. Washington state also passed legislation, and bills have been introduced in Nevada and Maryland.
But most of the country still allows for juvenile justice fees. Activists say the number of people affected by them is unknown. In recent years, there has been a push to change the system, and now there is a bill in Congress to take the movement nationwide. California Rep. Tony Cardenas introduced a bill that would authorize up to $500 million in annual federal funds to end juvenile justice fees. The End Debtor’s Prison for Kids Act would offer the states grants to fund mental and behavioral health programs in exchange for ending the practice.
Fees may also increase recidivism by impeding reintegration into society. Studies have found a correlation between fines and higher recidivism rates, though small sample sizes have prevented findings of a causal relationship. A three-year study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the fees placed financial strain on families and hindered rehabilitation.
Asked about the legislation, a spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she does not typically comment on bills before they go through the committee process. One sign the bill isn't dead on arrival is that New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the Democratic leadership, is co-sponsoring it.
A Democratic aide said there is little doubt the bill would have enough support to pass the House, but the barrier to a floor vote is the belief among Democratic leadership that it would be a waste of time because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would never take up the bill in the Republican-controlled chamber.
The Senate did pass a juvenile criminal justice reform bill unanimously last year, but that package did not address the fees issue.
In Hill’s case, she did not even realize she was still in the system. Four years after going on probation, she started to get involved with the advocacy group Juvenile Law Center, talking to kids about her experience with the system.
Law Center staff recommended that she call the courts to check on her record. She did, and discovered she had remained on probation through the rest of her teenage years despite, she says, never being visited by a parole officer.
Hill set up a court date to take care of the situation, but she says she wasn’t told about the fees. When she arrived in court, she was told she owed $326. Unable to pay, she was sentenced to another full year of probation.
“I could pay it if I knew ahead of time,” she says. “I had just had a newborn baby at that time and I was crying.”
Hill says she was able to pay off the full amount over the next two months but was told she must remain on probation for the rest of the year regardless and report for monthly check-ins. She also had to take a class on anger management and one on acknowledging what she had done to her victims, the adult security guards.
She also had to make quarterly court appearances, which came with their own fees. The extra year on probation ended up costing her another $200.
Finally, at the age of 21, five years after the schoolyard fight, Hill got off probation. She’s now trying to get her record expunged, something she never thought she would have to deal with.
Through her work with Juvenile Law Center, Hill travels around hearing similar stories, including one in which a parent was stripped of their driver's license because they couldn’t pay their child’s fees.
“I’ve come to the realization that they just throw out any kind of amount for people to pay without researching [ability to pay],” Hill said. “Especially if a person is underage, they don’t have the ability to pay in the first case. These are kids who cannot pay.”