A Fines and Fees Task Force comprised of County and non-profit leaders announced the transfer of $50,000 in private grant funds received by the Controller’s Office to relieve the remaining court debt of 27 juveniles who had satisfied all other conditions of the judgments against them.
The funds from the Cities & Counties Fine and Fee Justice Initiative of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity, provided $46,530.41 for outstanding restitution, $2,101.50 for court costs, and $1,368.09 for fees.
The grant funds were secured and the debt relief program devised by a Fines and Fees Working Group including the Controller’s Office, County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam, and representatives of the Pittsburgh Foundation and the non-profit Gwen’s Girls. The Allegheny County Office of the Public Defender set eligibility requirements for the funds and identified the recipients, and the County administration assisted with implementation.
“No one—especially not children—should be punished simply because they are too poor to pay a fine, fee, or even restitution. The current system prevents people from growing, from improving upon and moving beyond what is often their worst day and their worst mistake. We need to change this,” Hallam said. “I am so appreciative of our full Fines and Fees reform team for creating this initiative, for our national partners for providing the funding, and especially for our public defenders for working with our fellow community members who have been struggling with payments beyond their reach who will now able to get a fresh start on life.”
“One of the great injustices of the criminal justice system is that defendants can be doubly penalized for being poor with youth remaining on probation for years simply because they can’t afford to pay their way out of the system,” said Laura McWilliams, Deputy Director of the Juvenile Division in the Public Defender’s office. “Through this grant, restitution was paid on behalf of 27 youth on a total of 35 different dockets. Sixteen of these youth have already had their cases closed and been released from probation. They now have the freedom to start living the lives young adults are supposed to live.”
A representative beneficiary was arrested at age 14 for participating in vehicle thefts. Now approaching 21 years of age, he had satisfied all but $1,100 of a $7,000 judgement against him and had not reoffended. The debt relief will prevent the outstanding balance from resulting in an adult criminal record.
“This debt relief program pilot is exciting, so impactful and addresses the devastating impact of court fees and fines on youth and their families. As we learned from youth from our outreach and youth justice initiatives, one young woman shared that ‘It’s so easy to get into the juvenile system and so hard to get out,’ because of the fees and fines,” said Michael Yonas, Vice President of Public Health, Research and Learning at The Pittsburgh Foundation.
“A young person shouldn’t be disadvantaged for life when they have done their level best to satisfy the penalties against them. A criminal record, even one that results from a minimal amount of court debt, can seriously hinder employment and housing prospects. These young people deserve the chance to fulfill their potential,” O’Connor said. “I am pleased that my office has been able to facilitate this innovative program and thank the members of the Fines and Fees Working group for their vision and guidance, the Office of Public Defender for its work identifying recipients, and the County administration for assistance with implementation. I am hopeful our policymakers at all levels of government will see the benefits of this program and consider providing relief to similarly situated juveniles moving forward.”