Michael Harris

Michael Harris Portrait

Photo by Smeeta Mahanti/Debt Free Justice

Michael Harris is an attorney and Senior Director for Justice and Equity and Legal Advocacy at the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL). He works on various initiatives at NCYL including abolishing fees and fines for young people in the court system, litigating unconstitutional probation practices, reducing racial disparities in statewide juvenile corrections systems, and challenging the "school-to-prison pipeline" in multiple states. Harris also engages in litigation efforts to address all forms of bias against young people and delivers presentations on structural racism and implicit bias in decision-making within the criminal and juvenile justice systems and the school-to-prison pipeline.

"A lot of people say, all the kids that go into the juvenile justice system are criminals. That's far from the truth... One, a big majority of them go into the justice system because of what we call status offenses, things that wouldn't even be considered a crime if they were done by adults like truancy, like talking back to adults who in authority."

Michael Harris
Attorney, National Center for Youth Law


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MICHAEL HARRIS: My name is Michael Harris. I'm an advocate, and a lawyer at the National Center for Youth Law. I focus on issues that relate to young people like the school-to-prison pipeline, abolishing fees and fines that are imposed on young people, the alternative education system, and reforming the juvenile justice system.

DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What are fees and fines?

MICHAEL: Those are financial penalties that are imposed on young people, or sometimes their families, for just being in court. So some could be a fee for appearing in court. Some could be for having an attorney appointed to represent you. Sometimes it's for court administration. Sometimes it's for a number of different things that come across as ways to extract money from families and young people simply because they have a case going through the court system. Fines, on the other hand, are more specific. They relate to certain financial penalties that are related to a specific offense. So, for example, if you commit an offense like jaywalking, sometimes there's a specific fine associated with that offense, and that will be imposed on people as well.

In addition to the fees that are imposed as someone goes through the court system, there are auxiliary fees, as I call them, that go along with being caught up in this process of going through a court case. And those span the globe; they're tremendously varied in various places in the country, but they include drug test fees, and fees to participate in an alternative. So if your case is diverted out of the court system, often you will have to pay a fee to be able to have your case diverted. There are also probation fees. So if a young person's put on probation, they have to pay a fee every month or so just to be on probation, even though that's a form of restricting the freedom and movement of a young person. And it's endlessness. It just goes on and on and on.

DFJ: What do you say to people who say actions give consequences and that young people who commit the crime should be accountable for their actions?

MICHAEL: The general statement that actions should have consequences is generally stated in our society and in our culture. And a lot of people believe that's appropriate, but it doesn't take into account that the general statement doesn't take into account the whole field of adolescent brain development. And what that means, and a lot of people understand this on an intuitive basis, what it means is young people – adolescents – are not the same as adults. And so we can't respond to their behavior in the same way we respond to the behavior of adults because their brain has not matured and developed to the same extent that an adult's brain has matured or developed. So there's a great deal of science that has been published about this, that adolescents are more likely to take risks. That's not because they're bad people; it's not because they need to be taught a lesson.

That's simply how their brain develops and how the process of developing the brain, certain parts develop faster than others. And so the risk-taking part develops sooner than the part of the brain that says, hold up. Maybe you should think about doing that. Give that a second thought. That part of the brain develops at a later time. And so it's not, these things are done by young people, not because they're bad people, not because they need to be taught a lesson. It's just their brain hasn't matured to a point where they are equivalent to the way adults think about things.

A lot of people say all the kids that go into the juvenile justice system are criminals. That's far from the truth. There are a number of reasons why that's not true. One, a big majority of them go into the justice system because of what we call status offenses, things that wouldn't even be considered a crime if they were done by adults, like truancy, like talking back to adults in authority. Those types of things, status offenses, many young people are locked up for in many parts of the country where that's not even a crime if it's done by an adult. So that's one reason. Another reason is that many young people are locked up because of what is called probation violations. That is, they're put on probation for some lightweight offense, shoplifting, or something like that. And then they're given a number of terms that they have to comply with 30, 40 terms that they have to comply with. And if they violate any of those, they can be put in a locked facility. And so we often find that the largest group of young people in a locked facility, juvenile hall, or some other detention facility is young people on probation violations. So it's not that they've committed a crime, is because they haven't followed the strict overwhelming rules, which again, as a teenager, as an adolescent, is virtually impossible to do because young people like to take risks and they like to defy authority. That's just all part of adolescent development. But because that knowledge is not built into this system, we keep trying to penalize stuff that's actually very normal behavior.

DFJ: Can you talk a little bit about why this type of work that you do at Michael or why this campaign is a racial justice and an economic justice campaign?

MICHAEL: The work we do is a racial justice issue because what we have found in all the states we've worked in and we're in all 50 states, is that overwhelmingly not just by a little bit, but overwhelmingly black, brown and indigenous young people are overrepresented in the court system, and white people are underrepresented. And we know why we know that's true because white supremacy and structural racism guide the decision-making of who goes into these systems and who gets treatment and responses outside of this system. And at a very fundamental level, kids of color are seen as being appropriate for the juvenile justice system, whereas for white kids, it's not seen as appropriate for them. So other options are made available for them. That's why it's a racial justice issue. And it's this economic issue because many of the young people who have fines and fees imposed on them are very low-income and come from low-income families.

And so it is not a way that actually teaches them a lesson or helps them learn to change their behavior. What in essence, happens is their family is placed in this terrible position where they have very limited resources, and they now have to choose: are they gonna pay the court or are they gonna pay for medicine? Are they gonna pay for groceries, or are they gonna pay for the court? And so it's a terrible position for a low-income family on a fixed budget to have to make those choices. But that's the position we're putting these families in. And it's devastating because instead of the family being there to support the young person who has created an offense, they are now resentful that the young person is putting the stress and the strain on the finances of the young person, of the whole family. And it's unnecessary because, in reality, overwhelmingly, these fees and fines don't get paid because the families are low-income in the first place. So they don't have the money. So what ends up happening is they do the best they can, which is a very low payment on a payment plan each month, and very little of it actually gets paid back.

So these families are put in a situation where they are given a payment plan where they pay a small amount each month. And what that does is put them in a position where they never really get out from under the debt, but it still forces them to have to make those difficult financial choices. In addition, it creates tremendous stress within the family because now there's resentment that the young person has put the family under this financial strain and that causes tension when that's the exact moment we would want the family to rally, to support the young person, to help them overcome whatever it is they did that caused them to come to the attention of the juvenile justice system. So it's counterproductive by all those means.

DFJ: What does Debt Free Justice, what do those words mean to you?

MICHAEL: Debt Free Justice means to me that we have a system where when young people violate the law, they don't go into debt as a result of going through the court system. The response the court system has, they have a wide variety of options to help that young person get back on the straight and narrow, but none of them should be imposing fines or fees on that young person or that young person's family that only does harm. It doesn't help. And so, Debt Free Justice would be a system in all 50 states because all of these systems are state-based. Each state has its own system. So in all 50 states, fines and fees would not be imposed on young people as a result of going through the court system.