"I was working at a gas station and there was an incident. An intoxicated woman had come in and tried to assault me. . . . I was asked to write a victim’s statement. . . . About two to three weeks after that I was making dinner in my apartment and I got a knock at the door from police officers that they had a warrant out for my arrest. For not paying for my supervision and fines. . . . . I was not paying anything. So they arrested me and took me back to the jail. I had no money. My kids were still not living with me. I was making whatever minimum wage was, trying to pay my bills and child support. . . . I think I did 14 days in jail. I had lost my job. So there was a new challenge. I was able to remain clean. I haven’t used since."
Michelle started using methamphetamines when she was 12-years old to help her escape the trauma that she had already experienced, including a sexual assault. By 14, she was living on her own, on the street, couch surfing, or in stolen cars. She had her first child at 17 and her second at 18.
Along with convictions for possession of stolen property in the second degree (a car) and driving without a license, for which she served 32 days in jail, the court also imposed about $10,000 in fines, costs, and restitution. Today, with accrued interest, Michelle owes about $20,000.
Michelle chooses to not make payments towards her debt, instead using her income to support her four children and pay her tuition. She believes her education is more important. She is earning a Master's of Arts in Social Work.
Michelle made the decision to stop paying when she learned that, by law, her record cannot be expunged until ten years after all of her debt is paid off, rather than ten years after the date of her release. "I needed to pay all of my fees so I cried. I stood in the hall of that court and cried my eyes out. I was going to be a felon forever. Nobody was going to see me differently. . . . So I decided to own it. It’s part of my life and part of my story. I’m someone who is living with having a felony and I’m ok if I don’t get that expunged."
* "Michelle" is a pseudonym.
IN michelle's own words . . .
On Legal Financial Obligations . . .
"I have no problem paying [the basic fines]. It would feel very, very good. But charge interest on anything associated with a crime? It is heinous and ridiculous. Most of us that are committing those crimes are addicted or low-income or marginalized or oppressed populations. . . . It’s just setting us up for failure. It’s just setting us up to reinjure and not feel good about ourselves. I know me and I know my willpower, my ability to persevere through this but I also know that I’m unique in that. There are many people that don’t have that motivation or can’t see beyond those fines. As a system, we are setting up people to re-enter the system.
I understand that we need to be held responsible for what we have done and the offenses that we have committed. But there has to be a better way. And it is not through money.
Why isn’t there an option to do community service? Or places that you can do community service as a felon. We need to get more places to open up to accepting people with records, or even misdemeanors. So there is an opportunity to grow volunteerism in our state. We could get creative. And benefit our state for the better. There is a lot of good people that make mistakes. What if they volunteered to pay back court fees – they are getting back a sense of self-worth, getting job experience, building their resume."