Dante Bristow, 23, was raised by a single mother in Wichita, Kansas. As a child, he remembers his household would start to run out of food toward the end of the month, when the assistance money had been used up, and he’d go hungry. When he was 13, he and a few friends got caught trying to steal food from a store. It was his first encounter with the juvenile justice system, but it touched off a cycle that continued for years as he and his family struggled to pay the costly court debts.
“I was young, I couldn't pay for my ankle monitor. I went to jail, because I couldn't pay for my ankle monitor. And then they let me back out again on my ankle monitor that I couldn't pay for.”
System Impacted Individual
Q & A
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Tell us about yourself.
DANTE: My name is Dante Bristow. I'm 23 years old, born in Wichita, Kansas.
So I grew up in kind of a poor neighborhood, me and a group of friends. And all our moms were single parents, so we really didn't have the funds like that. We knew if we asked for something, nine times out of 10, it was going to be a no because we still had brothers and sisters to feed in the house as well, not just us. So I was just hungry.
Coming from school, had nothing to eat at the house. We didn't ever have anything to eat at the house, really, unless it was the beginning of the month. You got to wait on your food stamps. So I was just hungry. Towards the end of the month, I know we didn't have anything at home. So I went in the store, and yeah, I tried to steal, and I got caught, me and a couple of friends.
It was actually pretty sad for me because there was actually a man there and he tried to pay for the stuff instead of me having to go to jail, but the police officer felt like it was teaching me a lesson to put me in those handcuffs.
I came into the system at 13 going on 14 years old.
A lot of people don't understand, at that age, being incarcerated and being behind the walls like that without your parents, it can mess the child up. And I feel like it really messed me up long-term ever since.
And I've been in the system ever since.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What do mean when you say it messed you up?
DANTE: I've been dealing with the same officer, he's been in our neighborhood for a long time. So I feel like ever since then, I've been targeted more because I've been in jail. I kept messing up, going back, paying fines and fees, all types of stuff that we couldn't afford back then, so it was just messing me up. So it made me want to steal more and get things that I needed, because if I didn't get them for myself, then I was going to go to jail.
I remember one day, I was young, I couldn't pay for my ankle monitor. I went to jail because I couldn't pay for my ankle monitor.
And then they let me back out again on my ankle monitor that I couldn't pay for. So they were trying to lock me up. They threatened about locking me up again. So me being a juvenile kid, I cut it off, and I ran because I was scared. And that's what they're doing to us. They're scaring us.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: It sounds like you were being criminalized for not being able to afford things. What do you think about that?
DANTE: I feel like you should not lock the youth up because we're in a predicament where we can't pay for things. We are youth, and a lot of us are considered poor, from poor environments or single parents and they can't pay for us.
So for you to be able to lock me up because I can't pay for it is messed up. I'm only a kid. I can't get a job.
Because we're young, we're going to grow up and make mistakes, but we shouldn't be punished for them by going to jail. It can really mentally and physically mess us up growing up.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How old were you when you first started acquiring fines and fees?
DANTE: I began paying fines and fees from the moment you get into the system, from the court, lawyer fees, all probation fees, those are all fines and fees. And even still to this day, I'm still dealing with them.
But I know in the past, I paid, at least, I'm going to say 15,000 between me and my family, helping me out, and other programs might help me out, but a lot of money.
And as I get older, they're still haunting me now because they want their money. They're not going to forget about us. I couldn't even get off probation until I paid my fines and fees.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What do you say to the opponents of the abolition of fines and fees when they say, “These kids deserve to be punished and face consequences?”
DANTE: I would tell them to invest in the youth. Don't arrest the youth. You shouldn't arrest the youth, because we cannot pay for things.
Instead of locking us up for things we can't pay for, help us out and give us things in the community that can help us out instead of messing up long-term credit-wise or just background-wise.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How did entering the juvenile justice system affect your future in terms of background checks and credit?
DANTE: Even to this day now, I can't afford houses, or I don't get accepted for a lot of things because of my background checks, things I did when I was a youth, growing up.
I wasn't a man yet. I was still in school. So now that I'm older now, I wish I just had a chance, or get another chance to show them that we're bigger than the box they put us in.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Do you feel like you made decisions back then without fully understanding what the long-term results would be?
DANTE: I can say this for all the youth, I think I could speak for: I don't think any of us understands fully that it affects us long-term. Or, I think for sure, we wouldn't do it.
I don't think anybody is going to mess up their future when they know they're messing up their future. We definitely do not look at it that way. We're young, we're just kids. We're growing up still. We're not adults. We can't even take care of ourselves if we wanted to. So we definitely shouldn't be accountable long-term about things we did when we were kids growing up.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What do you want to say to people who are just learning about the problems with court fines and fees?
DANTE: I want to make a change, and I'm asking for help. Let's change this. Stand up with me, and let's get these fines and fees taken care of. The youth should not be punished for not being able to pay fines and fees.
Instead of fines and fees, we can do community service. There are other ways you could punish the youth by teaching them instead of punishing them and hurting them.