The Long-Term Costs of Fining Juvenile Offenders

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The New Yorker – By Eric Markowitz

Amir Whitaker, who was born in 1984, has lived in many places, including a brick house he shared with fourteen relatives in Plainfield, New Jersey. He slept on a suede couch pockmarked with cigarette burns. Whitaker’s father was in and out of prison, and many of his relatives—including his mother, aunts, and uncles–were addicted to drugs. The family got by on his grandparents’ Social Security checks.

Drugs were the through line of Whitaker’s childhood, and when he turned fifteen crack addicts would become his clients. “I was selling drugs, but I fully believe it was a crime of poverty,” Whitaker said. He is now thirty-two and recently published a memoir in which he recounts his family’s addictions and run-ins with the law. “It was a response to not being able to provide. When you’re in high school and you’re having to provide breakfast for yourself, I had no other opportunities. It was the economy of the neighborhood.”

Whitaker was perhaps not the archetypal drug dealer: in between crack sales, he’d read poetry and fiction. In his memoir, he writes of once greeting his customers with, “What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore? Quote the Raven … nevermore … muthafu..! Twenty dollas please.” In the summer of 2000, the Plainfield police department raided the house he was living in at the time. Whitaker, still a juvenile, was arrested with his mother and two others. He was charged with possession and intent to distribute a controlled substance. After two days in a juvenile-detention facility, he was released into the custody of his aunt.

At his sentencing hearing, about six months later, Whitaker avoided further jail time, but the judge ordered him on probation, revoked his driver’s license, and imposed a fine of about two thousand dollars, which to Whitaker was a princely sum. “I had never had that amount of money, even when selling drugs,” Whitaker said. “For me, twenty dollars was the world.”

At the age of sixteen, Whitaker managed to get a job at a Burger King, making $5.15 an hour, but, every time he met with his probation officer, he was required to pay at least a token amount so that he didn’t violate his probation for non-payment. As the fines loomed, Whitaker, feeling out of options, said that he began selling drugs again—“small amounts on the side,” as he says—simply to help pay off his court debt. “There was no support, no social worker,” he said. “You would think the best intervention would be a workforce-development program, or some sort of employment—or something. There was none of that. It was just punishment and urine tests.”

Whitaker’s story had an unusual resolution. Through a combination of grit and his self-described “thirst for knowledge,” he managed to finish high school. He then earned bachelor’s degree from Rutgers, a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Southern California, and then, two years ago, a law degree from the University of Miami. Today, he is a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Florida, and the founder of Project KnuckleHead, a nonprofit for young people ensnared in the juvenile-justice system.

Whitaker admits that he never actually did pay off the entire two thousand dollars. But it is nonetheless a reminder to him of the weight debt can put on young people who are caught in the criminal-justice system.

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