N.J. is making progress, but youth need more help to stay out of prison’s web | Opinion

By Laura Cohen and Emilie Stewart

 

Kevin Reeves reflected on his inability to pay $2,890 in fines and fees that he incurred following a court’s legal 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’re not going to ever be able to feel good about yourself.”

Four years later, that debt and other fees associated with his incarceration were still reverberating, undermining his mental health, personal well-being, and financial stability and independence.

Fortunately for Kevin, New Jersey took a crucial step toward achieving economic justice for young people earlier this year when the state Legislature passed, and Gov. Phil Murphy signed, a new law eliminating the onerous, mandatory fines and fees imposed on young people adjudicated in juvenile court. These included, among others, mandatory penalties of up to $3,000 in drug-related cases and at least $2000 for “false-alarm” charges.

These penalties often add up to thousands of dollars, money that young people, especially the poor and young people of color, can’t pay because they don’t have the security of a stable income. If they can’t pay, they become ensnared in the legal system.

Under the new law, juvenile courts — which have broad powers to impose a range of sanctions on children who break the law — can no longer levy fines, and old debts incurred by court-involved youth will be discharged. Yet, there is more work to be done.

Between February and September 2021, Kevin and other affected youth 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 fees advocacy project.

The central theme that emerged from those conversations went beyond the impact of fines and fees and included the enduring financial, social and emotional damage these young people suffer.

This damage is exactly what the juvenile court system is trying to avoid. Court officials have said they want to protect young people from some of the consequences of criminal behavior and combat disparities that occur because of a child’s race or ethnicity.

In short, while the system demands accountability from youth who break the law, it also must afford them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and grow into healthy, law-abiding, and independent adulthood.

Kevin’s story exposes the gap that still exists between these lofty goals and the lived experiences of court-involved youth. Not only are New Jersey’s children sentenced to lengthy terms of incarceration or probation, but their names and crimes often are made public, posing insurmountable barriers to employment.

Similarly, the court’s actions can lead to a young person’s exclusion or eviction from both public and privately-owned housing, leaving young people and, sometimes, their families without a home.

The young person could also have their driver’s license or eligibility to obtain a license suspended, have them suspended or expelled from school, barred from military enlistment and prevented from receiving federal student financial aid. For immigrant youth, it also could serve as the basis for deportation, often to a country they have no memories of or connection to.

In short, a system that was created over a century ago to shield young people from the ripple effects of criminal convictions now levies many of those same collateral consequences against our most vulnerable youth.

Making matters worse, New Jersey, unlike our cohort states, has no minimum age for juvenile court prosecution, rendering even our youngest children at risk of incurring consequences that could change the course of their lives.

And, because Black children in New Jersey are almost 18 times more likely than white children to be committed despite similar rates of law-breaking for most offenses, they disproportionately suffer the social and economic harms that Kevin and others have described so urgently.

What can the governor and Legislature do to finish the essential work they have begun? First, they can repeal laws requiring or permitting disclosure of juvenile court records. They can take aim at those collateral consequences controlled by state law, such as drivers’ license suspensions and exclusion from school.

They can enact statutes prohibiting housing and employment exclusion based on delinquency adjudications, to the extent that these are not governed by federal law.

They can amend the state expungement law to automatically expunge delinquency records when youth have finished serving their sentences. They can extend the repeal of fines and fees to youth prosecuted in the adult system.

They can, and must, enact a minimum jurisdictional age for juvenile court 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 antiquated and cruel youth prisons and investing in community services like expanded restorative justice hubs.

Kevin Reeves is determined to do the things all 21-year-olds want to do: get his driver’s license. Find a good job. Have a stable home. We owe him, and all of our state’s young people, that chance.

Laura Cohen is a distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Justice Virginia Long Scholar, and director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic and 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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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-18 03:10:43 -0800