Sierra’s journey with the justice system began at the young age of 11. Still, at the age of 37, that trauma sits with her today. A misdemeanor as a child led to her spending over five pivotal years in between probation and juvenile incarceration. With no way to contact her family, no financial support from guardians and no money to pay for the spiraling court fees, she was left feeling hopeless.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Thanks for having this conversation with us at Debt Free Justice. Could you just state your name, age, race, and gender.
SIERRA: My name is Sierra Jones. My age is 37 and I'm a black female.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Let’s talk about you first and the experiences you had with the juvenile court system.
SIERRA: Yeah. I had a lot of experience with the system. I started going to juvenile court when I was 11. My first charge was “criminal damage to property”. I was walking home from school and busted out a window on a tractor – just being bad. I got put on probation at 11 years old. From there, I got arrested.
I was in and out of the system on probation violations because my parents didn't understand that juvenile probation was a real thing. You can get a warrant and repeat the cycle. So, they weren't taking me to see my probation officer like I was supposed to.
I would constantly get a warrant and get picked up from school. I remember in middle school, they would come pick me up and take me to jail because I missed going to see my PO – stuff like that.
In the process of it all, I caught another charge walking home from school, again. I was stealing magazines and got put on more probation for that. My mom still couldn't take me to see the probation officer since she didn't even have a car. She was a single mother of three kids. So, I ended up having to go to jail and do my time.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: And how long did this go on for?
Well, now they have minimums and maximums based on your charges. Back then, however, they did not have any maximum. You could stay until you weren't a “juvenile” in their eyes anymore. Which was 23.
They were keeping me until I finished this program. It was a three month minimum, but I was just too knuckleheaded to finish it so it took me two years in total. So yeah, I was in that until I was 17. I was the first one they ever let go home off probation before they were 18.
During that time, my mom could not pay for the collect calls. So for the whole two years I was there, I had zero contact with my family. None.
I'm a kid. I'm not going to be able to pay that and my mom is on a fixed income because she didn't have a job. She was just getting public assistance so she wasn't going to take our rent money or our food money to go pay these fines for me to get off probation. So that was another set up, another reason why I never was able to complete the probation as a juvenile. I felt stuck in the system.
No contact. I still dream about that stuff and I'm 37. I still have dreams that I'm there. I didn't talk to my mom, sister, grandma, or anybody for two years. The day I got released, I didn't even know if somebody was coming to pick me up. That's how out of contact I was with my family.
They didn't even know to come pick me up so they came at the last minute to get me.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Oh man. That's ridiculous. Do you remember how it felt to go into a courtroom at 11 years old? What was it like?
With no parent? Yeah. I remember that. It was confusing. I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know what none of it meant.
After court I was sentenced to go to juvenile incarceration at Beloit. I had no clue what I was sentenced to when it was over.
I was asking the COs that were taking me back to my cell: “What happened? What am I going to do?”
I don't even remember talking to a lawyer or discussing the matter because I didn't know what a lawyer was. There were all these grown people in suits who looked alike and I didn’t know who's who to meet.
From my point of view, everyone’s on the court’s side. I'm in here by myself.
So the lawyer to me looked like them. There really wasn't any talking to him or her or whoever they were because I don't remember. On top of that, I had no parent there. My mom was on drugs at the time so it was like I was just there by myself. It was terrifying.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: I'm so sorry to hear that because that's one of the worst things about the juvenile justice system.
SIERRA: As a kid, that's a hard pill to swallow.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Do you know or remember any amounts they were charging in that program? Or just being in the system?
SIERRA: The collect calls back then for 10 minutes or so were like $15. Could not afford it. My mom didn't have any way of paying for it.
As far as my court fees and fines, they charged me for the public defender that I don't even remember having. I couldn’t tell you if I had one, what they looked like, or what they did for me.
They would charge me for being on probation. They would charge me for the UAs. I don't remember the amounts, but they would charge me for all of that and those payments would be a part of the terms for me to get off probation.
I was a kid – I'm not going to be able to pay that and my mom was on a fixed income because she didn't have a job. She was just getting public assistance so she wasn't going to take our rent money or our food money to go pay these fines for me to get off probation. So that was another set up. Just another reason why I never was able to complete the probation as a juvenile.
I felt stuck in the system.
It's why I ended up going to juvenile prison to do my time rather than completing probation. Because no matter how hard I tried, none of it mattered. If those fines weren't paid, I wouldn't be getting off.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How was it transitioning back into society out of the system?
SIERRA: When I got out, I was 17 and about to be 18 so it was time for me to get a job. And that high school diploma from the program is what helped me get a job. That's the literal only good thing I could say about that whole experience…but I never take that from them. Now, I work at a pharmaceutical company.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Is there anything else you feel like we should know just about juvenile costs and funds in general?
Yes. They need to come up with a system or something to help the kids to be able to pay for the funds themselves rather than just throwing it out there and saying, “Oh, you got to pay it. And however you pay it, you pay it.”
They need to come up with something that's going to help them be able to pay it. Or, if they can't do that, they need to just quit charging the kids at least.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: I really appreciate you taking the time out to have this conversation with us.
SIERRA: I appreciate it. Thank you.