This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Nadia Mozaffar, a Senior Attorney at Juvenile Law Center, focuses on advancing educational rights for children in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, economic justice issues, and protecting the rights of young people in the adult justice system. In this interview, Nadia highlights the negative impact of financial sanctions on under-resourced youth. She argues that fees and fines are inappropriate consequences for juveniles and contribute to a cycle of poverty and increased recidivism.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Nadia, why do you do what you do?
NADIA MOZAFFAR: I see my role as an attorney to work against the various injustices that plague our communities. My main focus, and one of the things that I'm really passionate about, is working on the various issues that hurt young people when they enter the justice system or the legal system, particularly the area of fees and fines in the justice system.
DFJ: Explain what juvenile fees and fines are
NADIA: When a young person gets in trouble with the law, and they have to go through the juvenile justice system, not only can they get in trouble by getting in a placement facility, getting probation, but in almost every step through their journey, they can be charged a fee or a fine or another type of monetary sanction. For example, say a young person gets in trouble, and they need an attorney; in a lot of states, they would have to pay to get that attorney, even if it's a public defender. Maybe they have to have certain types of drug tests, medical tests, or other examinations, they would get a fee for that. They may get a number of different types of court fees that the court just tacks on and sends them a bill for. And even after they're found guilty, they may have to pay monthly for probation. In some heartbreaking cases, parents have to pay when their kids are sent to juvenile detention or a placement facility. So essentially, in every step of the juvenile justice system, in addition to all of the consequences that a young person faces, they also have to pay money to the government, the state, and various other officials because of their involvement.
DFJ: What do you say to people who say “actions have consequences” and fees and fines are part of the consequences?
NADIA: Fees and fines are inappropriate consequences, even when a young person is involved in the justice system. First of all, we know that there are a lot of racially inequitable policies and other bad policies that lead young people who don't really need to be involved in the court system, that pulls them into the juvenile justice system. So further punishing them with fees and fines is especially problematic.
There are two main reasons why fees and fines are really inappropriate punishments for a young person involved in the juvenile justice system. First, all juvenile justice system accountability measures must be appropriate for a young person. They have to be developmentally appropriate and make sense for someone who is a child. And we know that fees and fines do not fit. Those circumstances are not an appropriate consequence for a young person who doesn't have a job probably, or the ability to get one, has educational responsibilities, and otherwise really doesn't have access to resources. Making them have a fine or fee is not a developmentally appropriate consequence. And second, we also have to look at the fact that a lot of young people are unjustly pulled into the juvenile justice system for a variety of bad policies that result in young people being in the system, even though other methods could resolve the conflicts that lead them to the system. And so on top of that, when we add unjust punishments such as juvenile fees and fines, it really just creates further harm.
DFJ: Dispell the myth that all kids in the criminal justice system are criminals.
NADIA: It's really important to remember that a lot of kids end up in the juvenile justice system for childish mistakes that maybe all of us have likely made. And while we may not have actually gotten arrested or gotten in trouble for those mistakes, many kids do. One example that is taking place all across the country is that now many schools have police officers who have the authority to arrest students or write tickets to students for things such as loitering when they're hanging out in the halls when they're not supposed to, or getting into fights, or using profanity. I think these are all examples of pretty developmentally appropriate, childish, silly behaviors that take place in schools all across the country and that many of us have engaged in when we were young people. The difference is in certain schools, because of over-policing and over-surveillance, kids are not just getting sent to detention for these pretty normal behaviors, but they're getting arrested. They're getting put in the juvenile justice system. They're getting placed on probation, and because of this, they're continuing to face more serious consequences.
Similarly, let's say you are a young person who took something from your neighbors. In one scenario, your parents can go talk to the neighbors; you could apologize and return the thing you took from them. On the other hand, the neighbor could call the police, you could get in big trouble, you could get arrested, and suddenly you are facing numerous consequences in the juvenile justice system.
What often happens is that many kids around the country engage in very developmentally appropriate, but often silly or unwise behavior choices. A portion of these kids are given a warning, or their parents ground them, or some very minor consequences happen to them, and other kids are pulled into the justice system for these very same behaviors. It's really a myth to think that the people in the juvenile justice system overall are people that are engaging in really serious crimes or are doing things that most children aren't already doing.
DFJ: Why is abolishing fees and fines a racial equity issue?
NADIA: Debt Free Justice is a racial equity issue because the criminal justice, juvenile justice, and legal systems in the United States are inequitable systems. All of the policies that go into creating the justice system do not lead to racial equity and pull more black, brown, indigenous, and other non-white young people into the system.
DFJ: How do fees and fines drive young people deeper into the system?
NADIA: One of the problems with fees and fines in the juvenile justice system is that they exacerbate a lot of the other problems in our communities. For example, a young person who comes from a poor community, who can't afford basic necessities might be tempted to steal one. So let's say a young person steals a tube of toothpaste from the drug store and gets arrested. From that arrest, they can face a number of other fees. They might have to pay for the attorney that represents them in juvenile court. They may get a number of fines resulting from that arrest. Let's say they get on probation every month. They're on probation; they're going to have to pay a fee or a fine to pay for that probation. And then, if they can't afford to pay for probation, then they're gonna have to continue to stay on probation and rack up more fees and fines.
If they lose their driver's license, then they suddenly can't drive to work or might get arrested. They might get pulled over for driving on a suspended license and end up in a placement facility or with more fees and fines. So essentially, what happens to this young person who didn't have money to afford toothpaste and therefore stole it, is that they get pulled into a system where fees and fines stack on top of each other. Then there are consequences for not paying those fees and fines, which can result in more charges and arrests and get them further involved in the justice system, which again comes with their own fees and fines. It's this really difficult system where kids are pulled further and further into the justice system, and it's simply because they don't have money and they're coming from a poor background.
DFJ: What do the words Debt Free Justice mean to you?
NADIA: Debt Free Justice means that our justice system cannot create financial sanctions on people because we know that the young people and the families that are getting pulled into the justice system are already coming from under-resourced communities and further punishing them with financial sanctions, with monetary penalties, with fees and fines, makes it harder for them to get out of the juvenile justice system and pulls them deeper into the justice system. In order for a system to truly be just, we have to remove the financial sanctions and the debt from our system, and we really need a justice system that is debt free.