Tyler Williams served a 6-year sentence in a Kansas juvenile justice facility for a crime he committed when he was 13 years old. After Tyler finished his schooling, he spent his time working in the facility doing laundry and prepping meals for 25-cents an hour. Half of that income and any money sent to him from family members were taken by the state to cover his court fines and fees. Tyler became homeless and found a part-time job making minimum wage in order to pay his fees and avoid arrest.
“You're going to do what you can to survive. And when you're stuck in survival mode, you never really get out.”
System Impacted Individual,
Q & A
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Tell us about yourself.
TYLER: My name is Tyler Williams. I am 24 years old, and I first entered the juvenile justice system when I was 13 years old. Whenever I entered the juvenile justice system, I started incurring my fines and fees, beginning first whenever I was being sentenced. I got out a month before my 19th birthday. And then once I was released, I kept accruing fees, such as probationary fees and stuff afterward. I incurred over a thousand dollars worth of debt, and it took me several years to be able to pay that off both in the facility and once I was released.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What was it like to be arrested at age 13? Were there adults to support you?
TYLER: When I was 13 years old, during my time after I was arrested, it really started hitting me whenever I was taken from Oklahoma City up to Junction City in transport. That's where I incurred my fine of $800. And the whole time I was scared. I mean, going from home back up to Junction City was a scary ride, especially being in the back of the cop car and shackles and seeing everyone on the highway, staring at you, just a kid in a cop car in shackles, driving hours to the next facility, that was nerve-wracking.
When I was in county, I didn't have any support systems. My family was busy working and unable to afford even to come and see me during court. So, everything I ended up dealing with alone, I ended up going to see the judge alone. I ended up meeting my probation officer and even my attorney alone, 13 years old, and doing all the paperwork. And it was daunting. I mean, during the sentencing, just unsure of what was even going to happen with my life.
I remember when I first saw the security gates outside of KJCC, I thought, "Damn, this looks like a prison, and I'm going in there? And that's going to be my new home for the next six years?" And it terrified me, you know for a 13-year-old kid to go through that. I mean, I'm still healing from it today.
Q & A
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What were some aspects of the juvenile justice system that had damaging effects, that have caused you to need to heal from that time?
TYLER: I went in at the age of 13, I was considered a med level risk youth, according to the youth level assessment score that they gave me when I first entered.
The youth level system is a questionnaire put together by the Kansas Department of Corrections and the Juvenile Justice Authority to gauge the level of risk of the youth based on their emotional criteria history, as well as their case severity. And that is the assessment used by the facilities to gauge where they need to place the youth.
Honestly, I was still a kid, 13 years old, still impressionable. I mean, I was young, energetic, curious, and still learning about the world. And I was placed into juvie at a young age, still learning and curious. And, I was placed with a bunch of literal violent offenders. I mean, some who were worse, doing longer sentences, doing juvenile life. And I was surrounded by that.
The failure in the juvenile justice system is that we put a lot of low-level and mid-level youth in with high-risk and high-level youth who have had serious offenses. I mean, there has been research that has shown that low-level risk youth when placed with high-risk youth, become high-risk youth. I mean, it's a learned thing. And we're literally kids just placed in a pit of suffering, with each other. I mean, you're going to do what you can to survive. And when you're stuck in survival mode, you never really get out.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What are some of the fees that you incurred while you were in the juvenile justice system?
TYLER: Pre adjudication, I ended up accruing a fee of $800 to transport me from Oklahoma City to Junction City. And then afterward, I incurred a fee such as violent offender registry and probationary costs, such as urinary analysis and upkeep.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: As a juvenile offender, were you the one expected to pay those fees?
TYLER: I was the one expected to pay those.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Can you estimate how much you’ve had to pay since you first entered the system?
TYLER: So, the total amount of fines and fees that I ended up accruing in the Kansas juvenile justice system was $1,064 and 69 cents, post-adjudication. Now, that does not include the violent offender registry fees or the urinary analysis fees. Those were $20 either every month or every quarter.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What did they require you to do to pay your fines and fees?
TYLER: So, I began making payments on my fines and fees that I accrued in court, two years from the end of my stay in the Kansas juvenile correctional complex. At that time, I had a job working for 25 cents an hour, and I was able to pay down about $200 worth of that debt. I was required to have half of my income, whether that come from family members sending me money or working in the facility for 25 cents an hour, half of my income was mandatorily taken out for those outstanding court fines and fees. During that time as well, my family also had to pay child support while I was in the facility.
Once I was released and placed in the halfway house, I was not required to make payments by the state. Once I was released off of probation and became homeless, that's when I started receiving calls every week from the county, stating that I needed to make an $80 payment every week, or there'd be first issuing of wage garnishments, and then a warrant for my arrest.
At this time, I was working a part-time job for minimum wage at Domino's. So, I was not financially stable. I was homeless, with no car, no vehicle, no support system.
You know what? I wouldn't be where I'm at today if it wasn't for the organization that I'm working for and the investment that I received from like-minded people. I was able to pay that off after about two years of payments and some investment from one of the organizations I was working with.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What would happen if you could not pay?
TYLER: If I failed to make my payment, the first issue would be a warning. I was then instructed that continued failure to pay could result in wage garnishments, as well as additional warrants for arrest. Wage garnishment means that they would take a certain amount from your check, every paycheck from the state, repeatedly until the fine or fee is paid off, or they could send a warrant for my arrest.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: You said you made 25 cents an hour working in the juvenile justice facility? Tell us about the work you were doing while incarcerated.
TYLER: After completion of high school and college in the facility, they request that you get a job at your earliest convenience to start taking care of your fines and fees and start getting some income for your release. When you first start your job, you start at 25 cents an hour. And the most you could make is 75 cents an hour. And that was for anyone, unless if you were hazmat, which means you would have to clean up blood, urine, fecal matter... then you would get paid $7.25 an hour.
I had first started working in the laundry, folding clothes, and doing laundry. And then I eventually went into dietary, doing the food prep, making meals for everyone, and eventually into a trustee position where I started to do maintenance work around the facility, such as wiring, making sure the AC units were functioning, and lawn care.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What are your thoughts on youth working at jobs inside detention facilities?
TYLER: If we're wanting to make sure that these youth are even going to be stable, we need to be able to pay them to be able to get out on their feet. And especially for youth like me, who had pretty much nowhere to go after my release from the facility, I was placed in a halfway house to make sure I could get on my feet. But if I actually was paid a reasonable wage while I was there, I'd actually be able to leave with more than just $200 in my account. And for someone who's just getting fresh out of the system, fresh, starting their life, not knowing anything, but how to be a kid... That's very impractical, and that's setting kids up for failure.
The youth exiting the system tend to have a lot of failures when it comes to recidivism and making sure they keep out of the system, especially when it comes to while they're in incarceration. When it comes to the wages that they are given, they're unable to really take care of the fines and fees that they accrued. And especially whenever they get out of the system, they're expected to get a job immediately. They're expected to start making payments towards their fines and fees in order to be able to satisfy their probation. And when it comes to these youth, I mean, they're literal kids who go in with no work history experience, no job readiness skills, don't even know how to build a resume, and they're expected to get out and hit the ground running as soon as they're released.
We're putting fines and fees on kids and expecting them to act like adults when they're still kids. I mean, you could put a kid in the room for years, they're still going to be a kid. They're not going to be able to grow up unless they are around a society that allows them to grow. And if we just keep them stagnant, then they're not going to be able to get out of the rut that they're in.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How did you get involved with advocacy work?
TYLER: In the work that I do with Progeny, I'm one of the original youth leaders. I and some of the fellow youth who were actually incarcerated in some of the facilities throughout the state of Kansas decided to make a change. We had firsthand experience of the juvenile justice system and how they treat youth. And so, we really wanted to see change, and we came together and started meeting, getting connected with organizations.
And that's what really got me into the juvenile justice work, seeing the issues that are clearly spread across the state of Kansas when it comes to our youth. And it's a very common issue. So we need to make a change, and we came together and said, "We can be that change. Let's do it."
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What are some of the ideas you have for changing the system?
TYLER: The things that I feel could best benefit the youth of the juvenile justice system would be the removal of fines and fees and the ending of punitive-based incarceration for youth, toward more community-based resources and victim-offender mediations, such as restorative based practices.
I feel like we can address the needs of the youth, the problems of the victim, the healing of the community, as well as make sure that we don't keep treating youth like adults because clearly, the adult system is failing them.
My vision of restorative justice is to not only bring the harmed party, the victim, and the offending youth together to not only address the issue of what happened, but also be able to bring healing, understanding, and community to really root not only the youth in the community but also give them the understanding of what their crime was, how it affects the victim and how they can move forward to reduce recidivism and be able to become thriving members of society and healing the damage that was caused by their actions.
Recidivism is the amount of times a single youth has come in and out of facilities, whether that be youth returning to a juvenile facility or they would be returning to the adult facilities.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What do you say to the opponents of the abolition of fines and fees when they say, “These kids deserve to be punished and face consequences?”
TYLER: When it comes to accountability, I feel like it's definitely a multi-layered issue. There's the issue of addressing the youth, making sure that they are accountable for their actions, as well as using that as a teaching experience instead of a punishment experience, especially when we use restorative-based practices.
I feel like that is a lot more beneficial for youth in general because these are still growing minds. They're still young. They're still malleable. So these need to be teaching experiences for youth.
The prison system doesn't even work for adults. And that's a punishment-hard system. Trying to push that on a kid, it's inappropriate. I mean, they are going to lash out. They're going to reject everything you say. If you come at it from a standpoint of care, knowledge, and teaching, youth will accept that so much faster than they will accept a whooping.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: When did you decide you wanted to be an advocate and work for change?
TYLER: The moment I really wanted to start seeing a change in the system was after I really hit a hard spot. It was my two-year mark of six years of adjudication. I hit a really deep depression and at that point in time, I actually tried to commit suicide. It took a lot for me to even look at myself in the mirror and realize what I was going through.
But I saw other youth who was there as well. I mean, I was there with a 10-year-old, and in my mind that's insane. Like he shouldn't be there. And so seeing the injustices of what was going on, the youth from their standpoint of how much of a jungle it is with them, I realized that this is no place for youth.
I'm dealing with it, and I'm breaking down repeatedly, and I'm barely surviving. I wouldn't want my little brother to go through the same thing that I'm going through. So that's what really struck me then was just not only realizing the trauma I was dealing with but also recognizing that I wasn't the only one and that there needed to be an overall change in the way that we help these youth grow.