Jeannette Bocanegra is a mother who intimately understands the challenges of legal system policies that impact families and communities. Having personally navigated the juvenile justice system with her child, she recognizes the negative consequences of accruing debts within the system. Driven by a deep concern for families burdened by court-mandated penalties, Bocanegra actively contributes to the Debt Free Justice Campaign, advocating for financial relief and justice.
In New York, it's less than $30,000 to educate our kids, but it's over $800,000 to house them in a juvenile prison. We are not providing our young people and our communities with the funding to thrive and succeed.
Parent of System-Impacted Youth
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JEANNETTE BOCANEGRA: I'm here today because I'm a mother of a child that went through the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system. There are a lot of policies that hurt our families, whether it's a policy about a phone call or a policy about visitation. This one is very close to our communities, which is a policy that affects families with fines and fees. We have to worry about how we feed our family; do we pay a bill or do we pay a penalty, a fine, or a fee due to a mistake that our young kids make? That's not okay. Families have to decide whether they pay their light or the fine. Do they pay their rent? Do they feed their child? Do they provide clothing? So what are the things that affect families when it comes to policies? This one is a big one, and many in our communities can no longer think it's okay. We can't allow these policies to continue destroying our families and ripping us apart.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What do you say to people who argue that actions have consequences, and fees and fines are part of the consequences?
JEANNETTE: I know actions have consequences, but sometimes many of these consequences don't even align with what young people do. There's also research about the brain development of a young person. And what are the things that young people do? They make mistakes. We all make mistakes, but parents and their families should not be penalized with fines or money. There are families that can't even afford to pay for that. They live on a fixed income. And again, it takes us back to a poverty level. Do we pay for housing? Do we pay the light? Do we pay that fine? We shouldn't be penalized. Those policies are ripping us apart. There are other ways of making it better. There are restorative practices and ways that necessarily shouldn't be attached to money.
DFJ: Tell us about your story, Jeanette, as a system-impacted individual.
JEANNETTE: That was a nightmare, and I don't wanna minimize the pain and the struggle and the trauma that I've experienced as a mom, but I also call myself a fortunate and lucky mom. I didn't deal with fines. But I also know many families that have to deal with paying $600,000 and her son is incarcerated and that she has to pay to be able to clear that debt. So as a parent, I'm lucky. I'm also lucky that I understand some of the issues that families in our communities are facing. But it also takes brilliant minds. So I'm very grateful for the lawyers that are working on this policy and how they're communicating with communities and how they're educating us about these policies that we need to wrap around ourselves together as a community to say no longer we should allow these policies to continue ripping us apart. I also heard of some other individuals who make $19,000 a year, and 8,000 is going on fines and fees. How do you, you take care of a family? How do you sustain your family when you have a debt like that? So I call myself the fortunate parent, not because I'm not impacted, but because I'm connected. I also understand two languages. I'm able to communicate in Spanish with other families. So if there are families out there that need translation and understanding of the Debt Free Justice campaign, estamos aqui para ayudarte.
DFJ: What was the most outrageous story you personally have heard or witnessed when it comes to fees and fines?
JEANNETTE: The one with the $600,000 debt. This is a single mom whose son is locked up with a $600,000 fine, and 60% of whatever she sends her son on a monthly basis is being taken away. So there are issues that need to be addressed, and there's also a stigma that families don't talk about these issues. The stigma, if I'm talking about a fine and fee that has to do with a court issue, they’ll say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. This must be a horrible parent raising a horrible kid. So these are issues that no one likes to talk about, but it's okay to talk about it. If we don't talk about it, we can't address it.
DFJ: Many people believe that kids that end up in the justice system are bad kids and they have horrible parents.
JEANNETTE: My mentor would say, “Our children are gifted, talented, and beautiful.” We're not providing our young people with the resources and support they need to thrive and succeed. In New York, it's less than $30,000 to educate our kids, but it's over $800,000 to house them in a juvenile prison. And for the adult, it's $500,000. So we are not providing our young people and our communities with the funding to thrive and succeed. Our children are gifted. They’re talented, and they’re beautiful. And parents, you know, I'm also a mother of six. I didn't give birth to six children and six manuals. I broke the cycle, but it's also a hard job. A hard job is to be a parent. It could be rewarding, and it could be a challenge. Our children will make mistakes. I think about myself as a young adolescent as well. I could have been through the system, but I didn't. But I'm glad that I understood through my own personal experience with my child because they helped me advocate better for my community and for the young people that I serve.
DFJ: What are facts about the juvenile justice system that you know but most people don't know?
JEANNETTE: I hear “parents don't love their kids,” “parents are the ones who want their kids locked up” and “they feel better when their kids are away.” No, there are systems that dictate parenting and what good parents should look like. We also know that there are policies in the child welfare system that dictate what a good parent should be and what they should look like. And the amount of money that goes into foster care and that system and those policies that rip families apart, they haven't done a better job. If families were given the amount of funding and resources that they give the juvenile justice system, we would do a better job.
We know that young people that have been through the system have been exposed to abuse and trauma. Their education has been disrupted, and when we bring them back home, they don't come back the same. So the system is not doing a better job. They need to be more transparent on how the funding is being allocated for young people transitioning back into communities and how they're being treated while they’re in the juvenile facility. Parents love their kids, but it's also a hard job to be a parent.
DFJ: What does Debt Free Justice mean to you?
JEANNETTE: No one should be charged to pay a fine for a mistake that young people make. There are other ways and other options to solve mistakes and repair the harm. We should not focus on the financial benefit. It doesn't benefit anyone.