You’re 13 years old, walking with your friends to Rite Aid so you can buy a flip phone. The next thing you know, you’re under arrest.
This is how Phillip Pittman’s involvement with the criminal justice system began. He was incarcerated while awaiting trial, where he encountered overcrowding and violence. Phillip waited 24 hours to be picked up; his mother sacrificed a day’s wage in order to come and retrieve him.
Fortunately for Phillip, he pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the case was thrown out. A happy ending? Not so fast. Phillip learned he owed over $1,000 in fines and court fees for a case that had been dismissed. The state went on to garnish his wages, taking 25% of his paycheck.
Today, Phillip works in construction and volunteers his time as a mentor to help the next generation avoid the same mistakes and pitfalls he encountered. He is an asset to his community. But the debt still holds him back. Unfortunately, Phillip’s case is anything but rare. Right now, all over the country, people are trying to build and rebuild lives, but the access to credit and financial tools that enable social mobility is cut off by exorbitant and lingering fees, fines, and penalties.
This is Phillip’s story:
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Can you tell us your name and where you’re from?
PHILLIP PITTMAN: All right. My name's Phillip Pittman, man. I'm from North Philadelphia.
DFJ: When was the first time you experienced the juvenile justice system?
PHILLIP: I was 13. I caught a little petty case. It wasn't petty, but I caught it. I got locked up.
I was sitting on 15th Street. My homie was out there. I'm not knowing that the cops is watching him. Now I'm trying to buy this phone off of my friend. He talking about they got it at Rite Aid. It was a flip phone, it was new at the time—this is back in the day. So I'm like, "All right. Let's go to Rite Aid."
Next thing I know, a car pull up with a light and just say, "Freeze. Don't move." I don't know who these people is. And it ain't had no top on. That's before I even know about unmarked cars, you heard me? All I know, I see a gun and I don't see no cop. I only don't see a cop or nothing.
So, they check my pockets. He take off $500, $600 worth of weed and $500 in cash. I was 13 years old.
So I wind up going to court for that. I got locked up. That was my first case ever. I was 13. I was in ninth grade. It was my ninth-grade year in high school. I caught the case. I was mad.
DFJ: Do you remember what was the outcome of it?
PHILLIP: Yeah. I actually won the case. The cops never showed. I actually won that case. That's the only case I ever won.
DFJ: When was the first time you remember having to pay any money for being involved with the system? And what is that like paying for that?
PHILLIP: I'm on parole, I'm on state parole and in county probation. I guess it's court costs and fees. I don't understand because, for one, they ‘re talking about they want some money but when I was upstate, y'all was taking all my money out of my pay. They take 25%.
And they still saying I owe. How? I only owed that one $1,800. I know I paid them off. Because I had $200, $300, $500 sent to me. One time they sent me $300. I got $200 of it. They take all that court costs.
I had to do community service too. I had to pay $1,000 fine. And I beat the case. How y'all allowed to take my money? Now y'all want me to go to court for some money that was mine. And at the time I was getting child support. Really some of that was child support and income tax money. That wasn't drug money.
They took my fine in cash. And I won my case and they didn't give my cash back.
DFJ: Did anybody ever talk to you about the process of getting your money back?
PHILLIP: Yeah. They told me, but they said, "Why do it?" Because I'm going to pay a lawyer. It's going to cost the same amount as my money is, so why would I do that?
DFJ: So you would have to pay for a lawyer in order to get your money back that they took from you-
DFJ: Even though you beat the case?
PHILLIP: Yep. … How do you want a kid to pay anything. He's a kid. Huh? How can you charge a kid a fine and make a kid do... Come on. He's a kid. So now you making him be grown because now he got to work because he got to pay a fine.
DFJ: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like going into the system at 13?
PHILLIP: Oh my God, it was bad. Youth Study Center, man- It was bad. Collar Hill. It was bad. That was real jail. That was a kiddie jail. It's a lot of us. We packed in there. There's a lot of us, you hear me?
A lot of people getting beat all up. A lot of people getting beat with batteries in the socks. Yeah. People getting knocked out, choked out. Yeah. I've been there, man. I seen it, man. As a kid in the system, you know what I mean?
DFJ: So getting out of the system, do you know if your mom had to pay anything dealing with the system in order for you to get out and things like that?
PHILLIP: Yeah. My mom had to leave work to come get me when I got locked up.
DFJ: That's a possible big loss of money, depending on how your job is.
PHILLIP: And I sat there for 24 hours. I don't know why.
DFJ: Talk about what it was like being 13 in the court room.
PHILLIP: Oh man, I hated it. It was embarrassing. You're in there with a bunch of people you don't know. Somebody trying to determine your life. Them people could have came in court and lied and said I sold drugs to somebody and I would have had to do all these programs and all this extra stuff.
But they never showed, because I never attempted to deliver to nobody.
I just had weed in my possessions. It was in my pocket but they charged me with possession with attempt to deliver and they took my money.
DFJ: And how did you feel like when you realized you won the case or did you know what happened exactly?
PHILLIP: I was happy. My mom wanted me to plead guilty. Listen, yo. I got a story about that. My mom wanted me to plead guilty, right? So they asked me, "Do you want to plead guilty or not guilty?" My mom told me to plead guilty.
No. Not guilty. My mom in the court room like, "What? Y'all can't let him..."
Mom, I'm not guilty. They said, "it's up to him." After that, my mom just rode with me.
"All right. You ain't guilty. All right." She is a rider, she... All right. We won three times. Me and my mom left. People congratulating me, man. That felt good, bro.
But I still had to pay some money. That's what I'm saying. I'm paying court costs and fines because I'm going to court. But I won the case, so where my money at? So y'all ain't waste my time?
So y'all charging me for y'all time. What about now I won the case, so what about my money?
DFJ: So what do you feel like a better system would look like for young people?
PHILLIP: First and foremost, they need to communicate with these kids. They need to come to all these playgrounds, and different type of [community] centers ... Because they got to come to some type of understanding. It's too much killing going on. They not doing nothing about it. Their best bet is to put the money in the community so the community could be able to help others.
So our kids don't got to run around and go to these other places and get in trouble, you know what I mean? Go to another park and get shot by a mistake, you know what I mean? Because we ain't got certain swings. Like our playground, we're missing swings. How we missing swings? Come on, bro. For real. There's the city of Philadelphia. How we missing swings? We wanted to start a basketball league, we can't even do that, bro.
DFJ: Do you have any questions just about the Justice Campaign in general what this like-
PHILLIP: Yeah. I need to know more about the Justice Campaign, man. I'm trying to be a part of it. How can I be a part of the Justice Campaign? I want to be a mentor.
DFJ: Can you talk a little bit about some of the work that you do?
PHILLIP: Right now, I do construction, clean outs, you know what I mean? Got clean out service, it's coming real soon. And I'm about to open up a hair salon, for sure. About to do something real big.
We're trying to make a change, man. We working with these kids, man. We got to get these kids off the streets, man, because I don't want them to go through the system like I went through the system. It's bad. It's not cool, jail not cool. It's not cool. I've been there. I've done it. I don't want to do it again. I just came home. I just did two years, bro. I've been out here for 17 months. I'm working. I'm staying out the way. I'm trying to be cool, bro. I'm trying to make sure my family good. I'm trying to make sure everybody I love is good, bro. I'm big on family. You know what I mean?