As part of 101.9 WDET’s Book Club, we’re inviting the Detroit region to examine and discuss the text that impacts every resident of the United States: The Constitution. Whether you’re revisiting the documents or reading them for the first time, join us in reading along and engaging in civil conversations with your community.
The 8th amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that excessive bail, fines and fees should not be imposed on anyone going through the court system. Two centuries after the document was ratified, advocates say this may not be the case.
Many court fines and related fees may disproportionately impact young people and their families, especially low-income families.
Frederick Epps is a single father. His daughter committed a crime in 2020, at which time she was a juvenile, and was charged in the Macomb County Court system.
Epps says he was given very little information about the case, but one of the things he discovered was that he was responsible for all of his daughter’s court fees, adding up to thousands of dollars.
He says he was fearful of what might happen to the rest of his family as a result.
“The main thing I was worried about was garnish. You know, because … I’m a single parent of five,” he explains. “So that was really my initial concern for garnishment. Which, when terribly interrupted, me paying my bills and being able to provide for her, for the rest of my children.”
Epps says the system is too harsh on young people and their families.
“I think that is, in a way, unconstitutional … because it limits us there, but freedom to pursue it is worth it to pursue everyday happiness…” he says. “I don’t see how we can legally be responsible for something we don’t have any type of on face or what facility they go to, what kind of help they’re going to get.”
Epps says there must be another way to hold young people accountable, without placing a large amount of debt on them or their families.
“So I think they should be … made aware of how responsible for the action in a way that they won’t impact the rest of their lives … that won’t impact them … financially. But it can still have an impact if they drag community service or things of that nature.”
No Other Options
Wayne County Commission Chair Alicia Bell has been working on issues of youth justice reform for 20 years.
Bell says there are too many examples of high bail fees and court fines that cause irreversible damage to families, especially young people. She recalls the story of a 16-year-old in New York who couldn’t raise the bail money he needed.
“Because he couldn’t have the $300 to get out for bail, he stayed there for years,” she says. “Subsequently, he killed himself based on how he was treated at that adult prison at 16. And only because he didn’t have the $300 to get bailed out.”
Bell says there has to be fairness in the laws that protect the population they govern. She says being low-income shouldn’t determine a young person’s future in the juvenile court system.
“I’m just saying with a cash bail reform, in my view, I’m not saying that we have to eliminate it, but I’m saying it has to be distributed equally,” she explains. “Just because you have money to bail out and the crimes are the same doesn’t mean that you should go home and the other person [can’t] only because they don’t have the money just to go to jail.”
Advocates Call For More Data
Advocates across the state have been stressing for decades that there isn’t enough data or research being collected to assess the impacts of the cash bail system.
Doctor Caitlin Cavanagh leads the juvenile youth risk assessment team for the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice. Her team has been working with the 30th Circuit Court in Ingham County, collecting long-term data on minors and the impact fees, fines and detention have on the entire family.
“We’re not setting families up to successfully help the justice system with the shared goal of rehabilitating youth if we are also burdening those families with unnecessary fines and fees that might be catastrophic to their financial situation.” — Dr. Caitlin Cavanaugh, MSU School of Criminal Justical
Cavanagh says courts have to do more research in order to get a better understanding of what is happening once court-mandated fees are handed out.
“I think a mistake that a lot of courts or researchers make is just getting data at one point in time because that’s really just a snapshot that could be a weird year for whatever reason.”
Cavanagh says the lack of research on the effect of bail and other court fees is impacting some of Michigan’s most vulnerable individuals.
“We’re not setting families up to successfully help the justice system with the shared goal of rehabilitating youth if we are also burdening those families with unnecessary fines and fees that might be catastrophic to their financial situation. I don’t see how that helps toward what the goal is supposed to be of rehabilitating youth.”
Last year, The Michigan Center for Youth Justice and the 16th Judicial Circuit Court in Macomb County, along with national partners, worked together on a year-long study to take a deeper look at the impact of court-related fines and fees.
Jason Smith is the executive director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice. He says the data proved fees were hurting families in the Macomb County Circuit Courts rather than helping them.
Smith says officials came to understand a change was needed.
“The Macomb juvenile court realized that they that once you account for those costs, the reconciliation with the state and the cost of actually collecting the fees, that the amount of money that they were bringing in was negligible,” he says. “Especially compared to the harm that it was placing on the young people or families that are barriers to interacting with them in a positive way.”
In June, Macomb County Circuit Courts became the first in the state to remove court-mandated fees for minors.
Frederick Epps says no matter what happened or how it happened, watching his daughter’s future open up was an amazing feeling.
“It’s a blessing because she’s able to work now … having a free conscience of not feeling that she has to pay me back,” he says.
In July, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform, lead by Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist. The task force will take a deeper look into proven practices and strategies for reform using data, research and fundamental constitutional principles.