Priscilla Amao

Portrait of Priscilla Amao
Photo by Smeeta Mahanti/Debt Free Justice

Priscilla Amao's encounter with the justice system began at the age of 13 due to her truancy. Being the eldest child of migrant farm workers, Priscilla's priority was to take care of her younger siblings, which led her to prioritize family responsibilities over attending school. Unfortunately, her devotion to family led to legal repercussions and financial challenges. Her family's constant struggle to meet basic needs made it difficult to afford court fees, fines, and fulfill other court mandates, prolonging her involvement in the system until she turned 18.

System-Impacted Youth

"[My parents] couldn't always take me to these mandated community service hours... to the group therapy sessions. The system said that I was the problem because I wasn't going to school. And I continued getting in trouble when I wouldn't show up to these court mandated things."

Priscilla Amao
System-Impacted Advocate


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Tell us why you’re here today? 

PRISCILLA AMAO: I'm here today because I believe it is important that people realize the true impact of fines and fees on families around the country, specifically families of color. 

DFJ: How did you get involved in the system? 

PRISCILLA: The first time that I was referred to the system, it was 2002. I was 13 years old. And the reason I was referred to the system was for truancy. I didn't even know what truancy meant as a 13 year old child. I just remember having to go to court and I didn't really understand any of it. I felt like I was being herded around, like, go here, go there, go to this window, go through this security, stand in front of this judge. And I honestly didn't understand any of it. I didn't know what it meant. 

DFJ: What did it feel to navigate the system being so young and not really understanding the process? 

PRISCILLA: It was strange, but also scary. At the same time, it was almost the least of my worries at that time. When I entered the system at 13, I felt like it went on for a very long time. I didn't officially end that chapter of my life until I was 18. I stayed in the system from 13 to 18 years of age. And it looked different each time, whether it was a violation of probation or if it was house arrest, or it was court mandated, if it was court mandated therapy or group therapy, all these things that I was forced to do. Again, I didn't really understand at the time what was really happening. Not even when I was sitting in a jail cell for violation of probation. 

I remember that day so clearly. I was in seventh grade. I arrived late to school. I had to walk there. I don't even remember why I was late. I don't even think I was that late. I made it to the first period and I was called to the principal's office. And when I arrived at the office, there was the school resource officer standing there and asked me, were you late today? I answered, honestly, I said, yes. And he asked me to put my hands behind my back. He arrested me, he put me in the back of his cruiser and I was booked into the juvenile hall. I spent several days there for being late to school. And it was really confusing. I remember just thinking when do I get to go home? This doesn't make sense. 

DFJ: You said that being arrested was the least of your worries. If arrest was the least of your worries, what was going on in your life at that time that you had more worries than juvenile detention? 

PRISCILLA: I was the oldest sibling in my family, so I felt like I had to help my parents with my younger siblings. My parents were migrant farm workers, so I miss a lot of school. I did my part in what I felt was my part. No one asked me to do this, but I felt like I saw how hard my parents worked. As the oldest child, I wanted to do my part. I wanted to help. And if that meant missing school, that just didn't seem as important as making sure that my siblings were off to school or that they were being fed. Um, I saw the efforts my parents made and school, compared to what was happening in life at that time, didn't seem important. 

DFJ: How do you feel about being punished for truancy? 

PRISCILLA: I felt frustrated. I felt like it was a waste of my time because I remember going to court and they would say, Priscilla, you haven't paid your fees and fines. And I was like, with what money? In my head, I was having this internal dialogue thinking this is the least of my worries being here, let alone giving you money that we don't have. So they would extend my time on probation or they would assign me community service. And that just kind of added to the burdens of my family. I felt like it was completely irrelevant to what was more important in my life at that time. 

DFJ: How did these punishments impact your parents as well as your siblings? 

PRISCILLA: It really did impact my parents because they couldn't always take me to court. They couldn't always take me to these mandated community service hours. They couldn't always take me to the group therapy sessions or the private personal sessions because they said I was the problem. The system said that I was the problem because I wasn't going to school. And I continued getting in trouble when I wouldn't show up to these court mandated things. So I just stayed in that system for such a long time. 

And it really impacted my parents because to this day, twenty years later, my mother owes Arizona Juvenile Justice, over $600 to this day, twenty years later on because of my time in the system. It impacted us because a collection agency was trying to collect that money and it really impacted how my parents would rent, get loans on a vehicle, et cetera. It really impacted their credit score. That really decided where we were gonna live or what kind of car we drove. It's not that they were being negligent, they just couldn't afford to pay these fees. 

DFJ: Could just paint a picture of what your monthly expenses were against what your parents made, and then how the fees affect all those bills. 

PRISCILLA: It wasn't even the fees and fines associated with me being in the system. That was not even on my parents' radar. They were trying to meet our basic needs like food, shelter, clothing. They had no money left over to pay fees and fines. I think the few times that some of these fines were actually paid to the court were the days that my grandmother, that I would call her up because I wouldn't dare ask my parents. They had too much on their plate. I would call my grandmother and ask her to take me to court because I didn't want to keep getting in trouble for missing these court mandated things. And it was those few times that she took me that she would pay. Honestly, I don't know how much she paid. As for my parents, I don't think my parents ever made a payment themselves. It wasn't on their radar. 

DFJ: As a mother and an advocate, what are your dreams for the future? 

PRISCILLA: My hope, as a mother, as a student, as a child of immigrants, is that the mass incarceration of youth would end, but I know that's a slow moving process. I will take ending fees and fines because everyone is deserving of a future with these barriers, with these challenges that hang over you. And that feels like you have to break through just to do what everyone else has the right to do. 

DFJ: What do the words Debt Free Justice mean to you? 

PRISCILLA: Ending fees and fines means liberation. It means freedom, it means a second chance.