Yusef Presley

Portrait of Yusef Presley

Photo by Ben Lowy/Debt Free Justice

“The way my life went, it took a village,” begins Yusef Presley. Caught up in the system since the age of five, Yusef’s search for community was often met with generic responses. Struggles for connection resulted in another foster home (over 100 placements in total) or psychiatric prescription (over 2,000 milligrams daily). When minor traffic infractions impacted his ability to participate in school, work, or volunteering, fines begat jail time, which begat more fines. “I see myself being someone the community can call on… When I think about my future, it's bright, but I'm fighting these little battles with the courts.”


"When you limit a person, as the system is doing to me, you create a pathway for them to re-offend—to get back on the road when they're not supposed to be back on the road, because they’re left with no option."

“I always talk about having my village,” says Yusef Presley. It’s not surprising the 24 year-old is drawn to themes of home and community, since he was raised without it. Ripped from his home at the age of five and shipped to a farm in rural Kansas, Yusef had more than 100 home placements—bounced from home to home in the foster care system, eventually to a group home, and then juvenile detention.

“I started having behavior problems,” he recalls, “because of the pain and hurt that I was feeling. I didn't know how to cope. It started out as sadness. Then it turned to anger because I had no control, and I just wanted my mom, I wanted my big sister.” 

Rather than address these emotional outbursts therapeutically, the system responded pharmaceutically. By the tender age of 12, young Yusef was heavily medicated with a cocktail of psychotropic drugs: Trazodone, Seroquel, Adderall, and more. Total daily dosages in excess of 2,000 milligrams.

The sixth grader was unable to sleep, unable to eat, unable to control his anger. “It was getting worse every single day. It led to me not wanting to go to school, not wanting to participate in anything. I wasn’t taking orders, I was knocked out and very sleepy.” One group home expelled him for being too sleepy to finish chores. “I knew something wasn’t right,” he recounts.

The foster care system had him between a rock and a hard place. When he took the medications, he was out of control, but when he refused, he was out of compliance. That led to more turnover and turmoil: “after a few weeks of not taking my medication, they shipped me off to juvenile prison because I wasn’t following my care plan.”

But Yusef was determined to live a life free of the burden of medications, and it paid off. Following his stint in juvenile detention, he was released to his aunt. 

“I started going days without taking it, and I started feeling a lot happier. I was having fun with my peers now instead of getting angry at them and wanting to fight them. And I just noticed a big difference.”

Still a young teen, Yusef focused on turning his life around. “I was happier, having more fun. I started to take interest in things like playing sports, as opposed to when I was on medication—I didn't want to do anything but sleep and sometimes fight. It felt like without my medication, life opened up for me.”

Traffic Tickets

Unfortunately, life for a young Black male in Wichita, Kansas remained a challenge. Yusef recalls traffic stops that felt racially targeted and minor infractions that ballooned into a revoked license and unnecessary jail time.

In an early winter evening in 2018, Yusef was driving home from college. One headlight on his used car was out, and a police officer pulled him over. For a college student at Christmastime, a $170 ticket can break the bank.  

“I was in college at that time. I only had money for gas to get back to college, maybe some food. So that ticket never got paid.” Yusef was never notified that this was a so-called “fix-it ticket,” where he could have the fine reversed by showing proof that the headlight was repaired. Instead, lacking the funds to pay the fine on the ticket, he avoided it.

A few months later, he got pulled over again—this time for a burned-out bulb over the license plate. He was told his license had been suspended and a warrant issued for his arrest. That led to Yusef being booked into custody and levied more fines, including interest on the $170 fix-it ticket.

Yusef explains: “The way the state of Kansas works is if you get three moving violations within a five-year span, they will revoke your license. So eventually, my license got revoked, which means you cannot drive at all. Here in Wichita, Kansas, we don't have a major public transportation system. Buses stop at seven. How can I do what I need to do? The nearest grocery store is six miles away, my doctor is miles away. And even having to go report to like a probation officer, my probation officer is even miles away.”

Fees: A Feature of the System, Not A Bug

The unfortunate irony is, going to jail because you can’t afford a $170 ticket doesn’t clear up the issue, it compounds it. “If you get caught driving with a revoked license, you immediately go to jail and the fines get steeper,” Yusef explains. “It's one year minimum in jail and a fine of up to $1,500.”

What we call the Department of Corrections seems uninterested in rehabilitation. Piling fines on top of fines hinders Yusef from getting to a point of solvency, and disrupting his life with incarceration only further limits his ability to pay the fines levied against him.

“As of right now, my fines add up to over $5,000 plus a revoked license. And with my license being taken, if I drive, I go to jail. Then as a result you incur more fines and fees. Not only that you're in jail. So how do you pay those fines and fees?”

Aspects of the system that seem intended to help those who are underprivileged or disenfranchised often come with hidden costs and loopholes.

“There is a myth in the world that your court-appointed attorney is free. The only way you can avoid those fines and fees is if you beat the case. But Kansas has a very high conviction rate and they have a plea system, so they give you this plea deal and make it look real good on paper. And when you take the plea deal, they assess court fees, just all type of fees in there,” explains Yusef. “Then, in order to complete the probation, they also tack on their fees as well. So essentially you're getting double and triple fees taxed onto you for different matters.” 

Unexplained fines, hidden costs, and punitive fees have piled up to more than $5,000, which Yusef considers beyond his capability to pay off. “I have other responsibilities in my life that I have, and as of right now, I can't afford to go get a loan for $5,000 and just give it to the courts. I have to pay rent on my own. I have to pay my utility bills, I have to pay my car bills. You know, I have to pay to go see a doctor. I have to pay for these braces I have in my mouth that are about 5,000.” Yusef continues, “When you limit a person, as the system is doing to me, you create a pathway for them to re-offend—to get back on the road when they're not supposed to be back on the road, because they’re left with no option.”

Growing Phase

Despite what Yusef describes as a “rugged story,” he has a remarkably optimistic outlook. He attended Washburn University and has been volunteering as a Youth Ally. Looking to the future, he hopes to use his story to help younger kids who need guidance.

“Right now, I'm in a growing phase—I'm transitioning to a different phase in my life. I’m discovering my destiny right now as we speak, and I see myself being someone's mentor, particularly African American kids in the foster care system. I see me being their mentor.” 

“I see myself being someone the community can call on. For me, a good mentor is everything. A mentor is someone you can look up to and be motivated by. A mentor is someone who has your back.” 

At age 24, he’s already playing a key role in his community, and giving back by creating his “village.” Yusef is a Youth Ally for Destination Innovation, a “youth hub” that helps young teens get started in entrepreneurship, and he advocates for kids in foster care and juvenile detention.

“When I think about my future, it's bright, but I'm fighting these little battles with the courts. And right now, I'm fighting; I'm climbing to that next step in my life. And I'm having the little setbacks, but it's not stopping me. That's why I don't mind leaning into adversity, because I feel like adversity makes me a lot stronger.”