Sharecropping has a new name and a new target: poor adults and juveniles. By the early 1870s, the system known as sharecropping dominated agriculture in the South. Under this system, black families rented portions of land, or shares, to provide for themselves; in return, they gave a portion of their crop to the landowner at the end of the year. Sharecropping often left families in debt because landowners would charge fees for the use of tools and other equipment and at the end of the year the families owed more in fees than they earned. Many were pushed into poverty with little hope of improving their situation.
In the 1950s American sharecropping hung up a “going out of business” sign, but the business was far from closing. In the 1970s and 80s a model not dissimilar to sharecropping raised its head in the criminal justice system under a new name: legal financial obligations (LFOs). LFOs are fees added to every stage of the criminal justice process: fees for DNA samples, electronic monitoring bracelets, jury fees, public defenders and even room and board.
I remember my first cable bill and the shock I had when realizing that my $59 cable service ended up costing just under $100. The cable company had added an array of fees to the service, fees for cable box rental, processing, installation, and technical support. Fortunately I was in the military and I had some extra money to cover the cost of those fees. LFOs are fees on steroids and they prey on the poor, including juveniles. In Washington State, when Ardell Shaw was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison, he owed $1,800 in court fees. Upon his release that had skyrocketed to $21,000–a 1,066 percent increase.
In Allegan County, Michigan, Frederick Cunningham pleaded guilty to forging a prescription and was ordered to pay $1,000 in LFOs. The fees were to cover the cost of running the courthouse including such things as copy machines, heating and even the county employees’ fitness gym. Both Shaw and Cunningham were adults when ordered to pay LFOs, and while difficult, they had the potential to find jobs. The same cannot be said for juvenile defendants.
The Juvenile Law Center reports, “Approximately one million youth appear in juvenile court each year. Costs, fees, fines, or restitution are imposed in every state.” While it’s an injustice to charge exorbitant court fees to adults to cover the cost of employee fitness gyms, it’s even worse when the fees are leveed on youth and their families. These financial penalties increase recidivism, push poor young people further into the juvenile justice system, and heighten economic stress for poor families. If a family is unable to pay the LFOs, there are often harsh legal penalties in addition to growing debt. The Juvenile Law Center reports that in 26 states, failure to pay results in youth remaining in juvenile placement longer.
How did we get here, and where do we go from here?
In the last 40 years, America’s prison population has risen 700 percent. As a result of the prison population increase, the cost of running prisons and jails increased significantly. According to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the yearly cost rose from six billion for states in 1980 to over 67 billion by 2010. Because of the drastic increase in the prison population and the cost to run the jails, prisons and courts states were faced with budget deficits. In order to offset the cost, states started charging the criminal defendants, even juveniles. As LFOs pile up on juveniles they are often at the mercy of their parents, a cost that many poor families can’t afford. For poor juveniles, failure to pay means they cannot have their juvenile criminal records sealed and their juvenile mistakes haunt them into adulthood, limiting their ability to climb out of poverty.
University of Washington law student Thomas O’Ban noticed this problem while interning for the King County Prosecutor. When hearing that some juveniles owed tens of thousands in LFOs, O’Ban said, “It just struck me how completely unobtainable that would be for me, unless I had parents to pay for it…their shot at a second chance seemed to depend on what kind of family they had.” Washington State has found restorative ways to end juvenile sharecropping that can serve as a model. The Youth Equality and Reintegration Act abolishes all but two LFOs for juveniles: a DNA collection fee and a criminal victim’s assessment for certain serious offenses.
While the measures for juvenile LFO reform in Washington State are a positive step, it still doesn’t address the underlying problem of why so many men and youth are incarcerated to begin with. Reducing the number of LFOs for juveniles is a great step but it doesn’t decrease the amount states must pay to operate large-scale prisons and jails. We can help protect poor children by demanding that state officials abolish juvenile LFOs and can also advocate for more confidentiality in juvenile records. We can no longer fund America’s prison industrial complex with juvenile sharecropping. We can go further by demanding that states abolish LFOs for both adults and juveniles. To ensure that LFOs do not reappear in some other form we can encourage states to find new ways of addressing non-violent offenders that put less of a financial strain on the state. Reducing the pipeline to prison must also be a priority.
1 John 3: 17-18 implores Christians to demonstrate our love not with mere words but with deeds. Now is the time for Christians to speak out and act.
-Marquez Ball is the Senior Pastor of Uplift Church in Laurel, MD, and is currently pursuing a doctorate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary