On the morning of March 4, 2019, several dozen Baltimore high school students piled into vans and buses to make the 40-minute drive to the Maryland State House in Annapolis. The students had come to lobby for the passage of House Bill 36, a major juvenile justice law that would repeal all civil fines, fees, and court costs for Maryland residents under the age of 18. The bill was first introduced during the 2019 session of the Maryland General Assembly. Advocates cited research showing that eliminating the fees would have little impact on the state budget — always a concern for lawmakers — but the measure died in committee anyway.
This year the bill seemed headed for the same fate, especially when the novel coronavirus forced the General Assembly to cut short its session. “There wasn’t any movement on the bill until nearly the end,” recalled Sebastian Johnson, Criminal Justice Manager at Arnold Ventures. “There was about a week left to get it out of committee so it would have time to be heard on the floor of the House before the Assembly shut down over COVID-19.”
Arnold Ventures provided support to two Maryland child advocacy groups lobbying for the bill, CLIA Youth, and Advocates for Children and Youth (ACY). “Developmentally, it doesn’t make sense to impose the same discipline on a child as on an adult,” said CLIA Youth Executive Director Ryan Turner. “The teenage years are all about making mistakes and developing into an adult. It’s important that we don’t put children in a place where they can’t rebound from the mistakes they made.”
To get the bill out of committee, CLIA Youth and ACY reached out to Baltimore teenagers who had participated in their education programs to find people willing to lobby state legislators. One of the volunteers was Dion Hill, an 18-year-old senior at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, which offers a law program. “In our classes, we talk about the criminalization of poverty,” Hill said. “I’ve never been in trouble with the criminal justice system myself, but I understand that we need to have a fair system. This bill was something we needed to pass to lift the burden of these fees and fines.”
Before traveling to Annapolis, CLIA Youth and ACY worked with the students to develop a lobbying strategy. Some of the teenagers would talk about their personal experiences with the juvenile justice system. Others would research legislators to determine who might be most receptive to their message. Hill’s job was to talk about the financial burden of fees and fines on young people and their families. Working part-time at a movie theater helps Hill pay for college application fees and senior dues at his high school. Some of his friends contribute money to pay the household bills.
“It’s just kind of a no-brainer that we shouldn’t be putting this kind of a burden on young people who make a stupid mistake,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to go into poverty or do something illegal to pay a fine.”
The high school students followed up their State House visit with several days of intense phone-banking, calling individual legislators to urge them to pass the bill. “That was incredibly effective in getting the bill on lawmakers’ radars,” Johnson said.
The teenage years are all about making mistakes and developing into an adult. It’s important that we don’t put children in a place where they can’t rebound from the mistakes they made.Ryan Turner CLIA Youth Executive Director
Ashley DeVaughn, ACY’s Youth Justice Policy Director, called the lobbying a “last-ditch effort that really made the difference.” The bill was passed out of committee on March 13 and approved by both houses of the General Assembly the following week.
“By the time it got to the floor of the Assembly, there was a kind of fire sale going on because of the looming shutdown,” Johnson recalled. “There wasn’t much debate — the bill enjoyed pretty broad support.” On May 7 Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, declined to veto the law, allowing it to go into effect without his signature.
The bill is the most comprehensive juvenile fee and fine repeal that has been passed anywhere in the country, according to Johnson. Although other states have also eliminated monetary sanctions for juveniles, Maryland went a step further by forgiving all outstanding fees and fines. “This shows states that this is something that can be done without affecting their budgets,” he said. “It’s going to be really important to our national efforts to repeal these fees and fines.”
Driver’s License Suspensions
Decriminalizing poverty was also the purpose of a second major reform bill passed during this year’s session of the General Assembly. House Bill 280 addresses the national problem of debt-related driver’s license suspensions by allowing more Maryland residents the opportunity to pay traffic tickets on an installment plan. Every year, around 11 million Americans have their driver’s licenses suspended for not paying a ticket. Because driving with a suspended license is illegal, these unpaid fines can lead to criminal charges or jail time.
“In most parts of America, you need a car to get to work,” Johnson said. “So if you suspend someone’s license, they have two choices: They can stop going to work and lose their job, or they can drive on a suspended license. If you get caught doing that, now you have additional fees and fines, and you risk imprisonment.”
Many jurisdictions rely on traffic citation fees to help fund their operations, which can lead to abusive and discriminatory ticketing practices. In 2015, a U.S. Justice Department investigation found that Ferguson, Missouri unlawfully targeted black motorists to satisfy “revenue rather than public safety needs.” When residents couldn’t pay, they were often arrested — in 2013, the Ferguson municipal court issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations, in a town of 21,135. Community frustration over these practices helped fuel the 2014 protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown.
Priya Sarathy Jones, the national campaign director at the Fines & Fees Justice Center, which advocates for an end to debt-based license suspensions, argued that suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid fees traps people in a cycle of debt, poverty, and incarceration. “The ramifications of not having a driver’s license in the U.S. are really significant,” she said. “It affects not just your mobility but your access to healthcare, to schools, to shopping. This is especially important in the time of COVID-19, because you’re now putting yourself at risk by taking public transit.”
Previously in Maryland, only fines of $300 or more were eligible for payment plans; the new bill lowers that threshold to $150 and requires that motorists be notified of the payment plan option. Research shows that giving drivers the option of paying a traffic fine in installments leads to higher rates of payment and fewer license suspensions. “If you give a fine of $1,000, that can feel insurmountable to a lot of people, and they just won’t pay it,” Johnson said. “But if you put them on a payment plan, collection rates likely go up. It seems more manageable.”
Jones would like to see payment plans be made available for all traffic fines, no matter how small. The Fines & Fees Justice Center, which receives support from Arnold Ventures, classifies all U.S. states as red, yellow, or green based on their driver’s license suspension policies. At the beginning of 2020, Maryland, like 43 other states, was considered red, the worst category. Following the passage of the new bill, the state is now yellow. Jones’ ultimate goal is for states to eliminate debt-based driver’s license suspensions entirely.
‘A Public Good’
The Maryland juvenile justice and traffic citations bills are part of a national effort to shift the burden of funding the criminal justice system off of the backs of the people least able to shoulder it. “Our view at Arnold Ventures is that the justice system is a public good,” Johnson said. “We should pay for critical justice system functions equally as a society because we all benefit from the provision of justice. It should be funded out of general revenue, not through this proliferation of user fees that affect the most vulnerable people in society, locking them into a cycle of poverty.”
For his part, Dion Hill, who plans to start college at Morgan State University this fall, said that successfully lobbying the General Assembly for the juvenile justice bill taught him a valuable lesson about the power of community organizing. “To know that the work we did played a role in passing the bill was really inspiring,” he said. “At the beginning it was intimidating to talk to the legislators — what if they didn’t want to hear from us? But this legislation directly impacts us. We should be the ones speaking up about it.”