Julissa’s son wanted to save their struggling family some money at the young age of 15. He shoplifted a tube of toothpaste, and when charged, the trajectory of their whole family’s life changed forever. The court fees were nearly half of Julissa’s yearly salary – compromising the plans of a better future for every member in the single mother household.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Tell us who you are and give us a glimpse into your story.
JULISSA: Well, my name is Julissa Soto. I came to this country 22 years ago. I crossed the border in the trunk of a car. When I arrived in Colorado, I had no family here. My children were born in the United States so they were both citizens. So, for me, I felt that we were a family with language isolation and status isolation. My kids were US citizens, but I was undocumented. I was here illegally and I was very afraid to come out and speak to people because I would think that they would call immigration on me. So, my life was just staying around my children and all of that. Until one day, the father of my children never came home. He left us with no reason – which left me very much in the shadow.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How was it supporting your family as a newly single mom?
JULISSA: Juan and Juliana were raised by me – a single mom who was struggling because I was undocumented. I had to go look for jobs that were very low paying or where people could pay me under the table because I needed to support my children.
Then I started working at McDonald's making $19,000 a year. I was supporting two kids and living in Douglas County, Highland Ranch. If it's expensive to live there now, imagine way back then. But I wanted to be in a safe place where my children can live and play, and being a single mom, it was extremely hard.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Do you find that your kids felt the impact of your salary?
Once upon a time, we went to the store. My son had $20 to buy some toothpaste and shampoo and all of that and I was waiting for him in the car. But, then my son never came out from the store and I was very concerned. I thought “Where was he?”.
And then I saw a couple police officers, and my teenager Juan, who was 15 years old at that time. I was trying to talk to the police and say, "What did my son do?".
They said that he stole a toothpaste, and I said, "Well, we have the money here. Can we pay you for the toothpaste and can we go?" And I was very afraid of saying much because I was undocumented, too. So, my son was like, "It's okay, Mom, whatever they want to do." And I said, "No, it's not okay. You're a teenager. Let's pay for the toothpaste."
I even talked to the manager at the grocery store and said, "Can I pay you for the toothpaste? I apologize. This will never happen again." They were like, "No, he needs to learn his lesson," and all of that. And I do believe that because he was a brown Mexican boy, he got penalized even worse than other kids, like most brown and Black kids.
Imagine, I’m making $19,000 a year and they’re taking $8,000 from that. It was very hard for me as a single mom, with my two kids. One month, I would decide to pay the penalty fees and then the other month, I would decide to pay rent.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What did court look like for you two?
JULISSA: So, they give us a ticket and we appear in court. When we appeared in court, I did not understand what my son was pleading guilty to. I just wanted him to say yes to everything so we could go home together. I was very afraid that they were going to take him somewhere. So, I kept talking to my son and saying, "Say yes to anything," and my son would be like, "If you say yes, Mom, that means that I'm pleading guilty." And I said, "Yes, but then we are going to go home together," and my son said yes to everything.
At that time, I was not provided with a translator so I didn't know what he was being charged for…we just said yes. And then with that, some penalty fees came along, around $8,000. So, imagine, I’m making $19,000 a year and they’re taking $8,000 from that. It was very hard for me as a single mom with my two kids. One month, I would decide to pay the penalty fees and then the other month, I would decide to pay rent.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How did you combat those daunting fees on your low-income salary?
JULISSA: So, I was always late on rent because it was one thing or another and I had to pick and choose. My son would be very upset, too, because he would tell me, "Mom, a lot of people have done worse than what I did and they don't have to pay as much as we do." And I would say, "Well, we need to do what the law tells us to do." I didn't understand any systems. I didn't know how to advocate for my son, like I understand now.
So, my son and I went through a hard core crash. I feel like they put us through bootcamp. We quickly learned that the criminal justice system is there to fail us and is against us, not for us. So, we paid those penalty fees and we ended up paying the $8,000. But, we did get evicted from our home.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Did eviction worsen the family dynamic?
JULISSA: We ended up with a separated family. My daughter, at that time, decided to go back home to Mexico. She would say "We are barely making it and my brother, with what he did, has put us behind Mom". She left me and Juan here paying what we needed to pay. So, I feel that this incident separated my family in many ways. My daughter had to go to Mexico. My son stayed here because he also was in classes so he couldn’t leave Colorado, too, and I had to take those classes with him.
I remember telling the court, "Can I clean the court? Can I do something for the court, because I don't have that money? I just don't have it." And the court was like, "No, your son needs to pay for it." I would always question how my son was going to pay for it at the age of 15 years old.
So, I believe that whoever imposed these fees on our children didn’t think about that. At the end of the day, the parents are the ones that need to pay for it and not the children.
So, my fight to pass House Bill 1315 was about that and those juvenile court fees. I believed that we should focus on the child and focus on the youth as a whole.
If you were to talk to Juan at that time, he would have told you, "My mom is single. My mom barely speaks English. We don't have food on the table."
Life is different now, but way back then, we barely had money to buy food. My son was getting more and more upset with the criminal justice system, and that was me, too. So, us fighting for this house bill to pass is for those parents like me: the single parents that are barely making it.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Could you explain House Bill 1315 for those who don’t know?
Okay. House Bill 1315 will reduce the cost of court and juvenile fees. For example, say your child gets charged $300 for a crime that they commit. Those $300 will not be charged to the parent, but now, the child will need to pay for their mistakes. For example, they might be able to work at the store for a week or two, or the money might be going to restitution. It depends on the crime. But now, we're targeting the youth and not the parents and the family as a whole. That's what House Bill 1315 is – to reduce court court fees and to take the burden off of the parents.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Okay. And I may have missed this part when you were telling your story, did you talk about how you had to get a second job to pay?
JULISSA: No. So, I was working at McDonald's and then at the Marriott as a PBX operator. I would leave the house at 4:00 in the morning and come back at 11:00 PM, I wouldn't see the sun at all. And when it was my day off, I would choose to work because I had to pay those bills. So, because I had two jobs, my family situation got worse. Even though we paid the courts, and the system was happy with our money, they never came back and asked, "How did this deteriorate your family? Are you guys okay? Do you guys need therapy?"
We ended up in therapy. At the time, my children barely knew me, they just didn't see “mom” at all. So, for us, taking therapy and all of that, that's something that the court is not going to give me back. Also, the court is not going to give me back the time and that resentment that my children had towards me for not being at home. So, my fight with this house bill was very personal.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Very good. And when you talk about where your son is now, what he's done since then, I know he was in Afghanistan twice-
JULISSA: Juan is doing extremely well. He went to Afghanistan twice and he joined the Army. I would like to tell many people who work in the criminal justice systems, "Look how much you deteriorated this kid, but he turned around and paid back by serving the country. So many of the kids that you might be judging out there, or many of the kids that you might be charging with any fees are the ones who might end up saving our lives and fighting for our country."
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Let me ask you, what do you desire the most right now, in terms of what change needs to happen, not necessarily here in Colorado, but in this country?
What I desire the most is that House Bill 1315 gets passed nationwide. And then second of all, that all those fines and fees go to educational programs. Let's focus on the youth. Let's focus on their behavioral health. Let's focus on their health overall. Why is it that they do what they do? There’s always a reason for something. My dream will be that every single state has programs where the money goes to restitution if it needs to and programs for youth.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Tell me about your personal progression from not speaking any English to now, you have, I believe, a master's degree. And so, tell people how you've brought yourself up in this country.
JULISSA: Perfect. Well, at that time, I didn't speak a word of English. I was undocumented and uneducated with only a fifth grade level of education. I went and learned how to speak English. In three months, I was fluent in both languages. Then I went to school and got, of course, my Associates and my Bachelors, and now I have my Master's in Public Health. I also became a US citizen 10 years ago. But it has always been a struggle, everything I have done has been a struggle, but I believe the education has got me here.
Now, I also serve in the Office of Health Equity Commission and I also serve in the Suicide Prevention Commission. So, I'm one of the commissioners and I just make sure that people are served with respect and dignity. Part of my job, right now, is to be part of the Governor's Equity Team and organize Vaccine Equity Clinics around the state of Colorado – reaching those who are less unfortunate. So, it has been a struggle, but a good struggle.