For a better youth justice system

Youth Justice | 12/20/2021

James Wilson

I am a father of three amazing boys, and I have experienced our juvenile justice system.   

Around age 10, I had my first encounter with law enforcement. By age 11, I was in a detention center for the first time. After that, I was in and out of the system for a lot of my life. The longest time was when I was gone at 17 after being waived into adult court. I didn’t get out until I was 26. Between the ages of 11 and 26, the longest time I stayed out was two years - until now. I have been out for eight years.   

Because of this, I understand firsthand many of the problems in our system, including why the costs and fees associated with juvenile prosecution both perpetuates the cycle of poverty and keeps kids going back into the system.  

Juvenile costs and fees disproportionately punish low-income youth and their families as well as communities of color just because they cannot afford to pay.


In our society, we focus a lot on money – many times more than we focus on people. Our juvenile justice system is inequitable and broken if it places a monetary value on freedom and doesn’t consider socioeconomic trauma or child’s overall wellbeing. Juvenile justice should be restorative. Costs and fees will and do cause recidivism.   

As a child, I remember when my mother couldn’t pay the rent and we didn’t have a place to stay. With a still developing mind, my only thought was how to nurture and take care of the problem. Children don’t always make fully rational choices, especially children who see fight or theft as a way to sustain their family and livelihoods. When a child is punished for this without the chance to understand their mistakes and the opportunities to advance and sustain them, the system fails. A child won’t leave the system healed, but instead placed back in survival mode with the possibility of becoming an even smarter criminal.  

I could tell you that I had to keep robbing, stealing and selling dope just to pay costs and fees, just to sustain my life. What I really want you to take from my story is the need for our justice system to evolve into something that supports children and their families. Our juvenile justice system should offer counseling, supports, encouragement and growth. It shouldn’t be a system that straps children and families with additional debt. It should look at the root causes and work to give children and their families the best chances possible.   

When we really look at why an individual committed those acts, it often has to do with a socioeconomic disparity. Kids will continue to do what they need to survive when their situations aren’t made better by our system, but even worse because of costs and fees. 

It’s a continual add-on for systematic oppression through dollars and cents. It controls families and children. It’s unnecessary. Eliminating costs and fees will decrease recidivism. It’s a beginning step to bringing hope to a system that currently leaves many hopeless and struggling.   

If you agree, please join me by signing this petition today. By adding your name, you’ll be notified of additional actions you can easily take online throughout the legislative session that will help advocates like me push for a better youth justice system.  

Lastly, if you or someone you know has also experienced the Indiana juvenile justice system and has a story to share, share it here.  

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