She Tried to Steal $15 Pants as a Teen. The Fines Devastated Her Family.

The U.S. is finally reconsidering whether the massive fines and fees often levied against children and their families are fair.
June 18, 2021, 1:55pm
Woman in handcuffs (Bill Oxford/Getty Images)
Woman in handcuffs (Bill Oxford/Getty Images)

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When she was 15 years old, Siobhan Cancél tried to steal a pair of cheap pants from a store in Eugene, Oregon. She thought they’d make a good Father’s Day gift.

But she got caught. And the cold reality that followed—the store calling the cops, officers handcuffing her, the harsh consequences—has come to haunt Cancél, now 35, for decades.

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Because of how the juvenile justice system works, Cancél and her mother were both punished for the attempted petty theft. The family was saddled with a court date that Cancél’s mother had to miss work to attend, about $500 in fines and administrative fees, and further costs if they were late on their payments—which, of course, they were. Cancél’s mom could hardly afford food and electricity at the time, let alone other bills.

By the time the family was able to pay off the resulting debt, about three years after the shoplifting incident occurred, it had grown to a suffocating $1,200. 

“It’s stuck with me my whole life,” said Cancél, who’s now the volunteer leader of the Lane County chapter of Stand for Children Oregon, a nonprofit organization advocating for an equitable education. “Even just talking about it gets me a little bit choked up because I personally feel that I failed. My mom was a single mom, and she’s doing everything she can to just keep a roof over my head, and now I’ve added this additional burden.”

Unlike the adult criminal legal system, the juvenile process has been geared toward rehabilitation, not just punishment, since its creation in the U.S. more than a century ago. But only recently have legislators in statehouses across the country begun to reconsider whether the kinds of fees levied against people like Cancél are fair. Some states continue to charge “child support” for kids who end up in custody, and juvenile courts in at least one state once expected families to pay for a scared-straight type program that carted children off to the coroner’s office.

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Just this year, lawmakers in 14 states, including Oregon, have introduced bills to abolish some or all juvenile fines and fees. Four of those proposals have already succeeded: one in Virginia, another in New Mexico, a third in Louisiana, and the most recent, in Texas.

All in all, 11 states have reformed how they handle juvenile fines and fees in approximately six years—and that the number is expected to grow.

“The majority of these people do not really have finances to begin with. So why on earth would you be charging them any money at all?”

“I don’t know of any opposition,” said Oregon State Sen. James Manning Jr., a Democrat from Eugene who co-sponsored an earlier version of his state’s legislation to get rid of juvenile fees and court costs. “The dollars raised by the fees are minimal, so the courts are not getting any money out of it. The only thing it’s doing is just keeping people oppressed and setting people up for failure.” 

Similar initiatives have cropped up on the local level, too. The Macomb County, Michigan, Circuit Court decided last month it would no longer collect discretionary and waivable fines or fines while also erasing the $84 million in collective debt that had dogged families. And Dane County, Wisconsin, forgave $1.4 million in outstanding debt related to juvenile court costs last year and discontinued the collection of fees. 

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Last week, the movement even made its way to the desk of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. Experts and advocates from more than 180 organizations urged the Justice Department in a letter to join their quest for abolition, in part because of potential constitutional violations surrounding juvenile fines and fees: The Eighth Amendment protects against excessive fines, while policies that make kids pay fees for a public defender could limit juveniles’ rights to counsel.

And, much like punishments in the adult legal system, the experts wrote, the burden is also disproportionately put on low-income families of color, like Cancél’s. 

“At a minimum, I’ve heard over and over that it creates mistrust in the system,” said Amy Miller, executive director of the nonprofit law firm Youth, Rights & Justice in Oregon. “A huge piece of this is around rehabilitation and helping kids heal and develop the tools they need so that they can be successful. And when they don’t have faith that the system is helping them, then there’s going to be a problem.”  

‘A system that punishes people for being poor’

Fine and fee amounts vary by jurisdiction nationwide, but parents and youth can wind up owing money for a number of reasons: charges related to the offense itself; public defender fees; probation supervision, which costs about $50 per month on average; the cost of incarceration; rehabilitative services and mental health treatment; GPS monitoring; typical court expenses like operational fees; and more. 

In Oregon, families involved in the juvenile justice system can be responsible for fees from the relevant county’s probation department, costs from the state court system, and even “child support” if their kid winds up in the custody of the Oregon Youth Authority, according to Jeffrey Selbin, the director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.

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“On what planet is child support paid from the actual parent, the guardian, to the state for the privilege of them incarcerating their kid?” Selbin said. 

The punishment isn’t even a revenue-generator for the state, according to testimony submitted on behalf of Youth, Rights & Justice in support of Oregon Senate Bill 817, which would abolish fines and fees and apply retroactively.  The Oregon Division of Child Support spent about $866,000 collecting more than $864,000 in support fees in 2019.

Almost all of the parents who still owe fees earn less than $2,000 a month. 

Sarah Evans, a spokesperson for the Oregon Youth Authority, which receives the money, told VICE News that while it supports policy conversations around child support fees, it hasn’t taken an official position on the state’s abolition efforts “due to the need to ask for additional funding from the Legislature in order to offset the revenue loss.”

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Siobhan Cancél (image courtesy of source)

The fees are a pressing enough problem that Cancél agreed to testify earlier this year in favor of efforts to scrap fines and fees for children, despite the pain and tears that often come from recalling her family’s debt. In testimony last February, she told a state Senate committee the story of almost shoplifting the pants and the resulting fines.

She asked whether the fees were worth the agony they were causing families or whether her own family would’ve been similarly punished if they weren’t Black. The white girl she was with when she attempted to take the pants had also stolen something—only to leave the store unscathed and unsearched. 

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“There is something wrong with a system that punishes people for being poor,” Cancél told legislators in the virtual hearing. “That is exactly what happened to me and my mom.” 

‘Why on earth would you be charging them?’

For years, the costs that tallied up whenever a person committed some civil or criminal offense in the U.S. often went undiscussed. 

That largely changed after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. In the wake of his death, the city was discovered to be extracting cash from residents through municipal fines and fees to make more money. Those impacted were overwhelmingly Black. 

After the murder of George Floyd last year, the problem surfaced once more. Floyd had suffered through the same kind of monetary punishments; he once failed to pay a $283 misdemeanor fine, which caused his license to be suspended and triggered further legal troubles, according to the Washington Post. 

“We started looking back at Tamir Rice, we started looking back at George Floyd, we started looking back at Michael Brown,” Manning said of Oregon’s reform efforts. “All of these things continue to demonstrate a pattern, because you start getting into the criminal justice system and you see the disproportionate impact of a system that’s working exactly as it was designed to do.”

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Black children in the U.S. are about five times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers, according to a February report from the Sentencing Project. Burdening their families with fines and fees can wind up exacerbating poverty while pushing kids deeper into the legal system until, eventually, they’re grown-ups who can be subjected to even more serious sanctions, like prison time, for their crimes.

“We’ve not done the things necessary to heal and create healthy environments for children to live in, but we will punish them,” said Valerie Slater, the executive director of Virginia’s RISE for Youth, which advocates for the abolition of the youth prison system. “We’re overpolicing the things we have failed to appropriately support and resource.” 

Her state’s practice of making parents pay child support if their kids are in state custody will end July 1, thanks to legislation approved in March. Under that policy, even families who made zero dollars in monthly income were charged up to $68 for one child. The wealthiest parent, on the other hand, paid up to $821 for an incarcerated child. And that charge applied to each guardian, even if the child’s parents were married. 

For example, Sue, a mother in Virginia who asked that VICE News not publish her full identity or location for fear of repercussions on her incarcerated child, said her family was once expected to pay some $1,600 in monthly child support altogether. Based on their combined income, Sue and her husband owed a higher amount.

“On what planet is child support paid from the actual parent, the guardian, to the state for the privilege of them incarcerating their kid?”

Luckily, the couple successfully contested the fees in court in 2019 and lowered the cost to $500 a month, which was far easier for them to swallow. 

“The juvenile judge had absolutely no idea that these fees were collected,” Sue said. “None.” 

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But her family is the exception, not the rule, she said. They have good jobs, and they’re well-resourced. Most parents wouldn’t have the know-how, means, or time to argue before a judge about their capacity to pay, especially if they thought it might come back to bite their child.

“A lot of those parents have got three and four other kids. Some of them are bringing to visitation little teeny-tiny ones because they can’t pay for a babysitter,” Sue said of the other parents with kids in juvenile lockup. “Some of them, the only way they can get there to visit their child is on the free bus that they run once a month.”

“The majority of these people do not really have finances to begin with,” she added. “So why on earth would you be charging them any money at all?” 

In Cancél’s case, law enforcement could’ve just let her mother pay for the pants she attempted to steal, which were likely worth around $15. She and her friend pleaded with store employees to call their parents—anyone but the police. But the cops were still brought in. Police threatened to take Cancél into custody if her mom, who was likely sleeping before her night shift, couldn’t come to pick her up.

“There are other ways to teach children,” Cancél said. “Which is really what this is.”

Instead, the far larger monetary punishment stemming from her offense left her with a sense of shame that lingers nearly two decades later. Sometimes, she can still feel the handcuffs on her wrists. But the burden she put on her mom hurts most of all.

“She’s never, ever said anything,” Cancél said through tears. “But it always sticks with me that in addition to everything else she was handling, on top of that, now she has to take her 15-year-old daughter to court.”