NFL players: Avoiding court debt gives kids the opportunity to succeed | Opinion
By Trey Flowers and Anquan Boldin
As kids, it took a village to make us the athletes we are today. Adults around us believed in and nurtured our potential. They helped us find opportunities to turn our passions into professions.
Young people all over Michigan, a state we both fiercely love, deserve the same nurturing support we received, no matter their successes or failures during adolescence. Yet 8,000–10,000 young people per year — disproportionately Black and Brown youth — are caught up in this state’s juvenile justice system. Michigan has recently re-committed to identifying urgent areas of juvenile justice reform. However, it’s already clear that one part of that system — juvenile court debt — poses major barriers to the support young people need to thrive and so it must be eliminated.
The fees and fines courts charge young people for their involvement in the juvenile justice system is not only counterproductive to supporting youth potential, but also drains Michigan families of their economic resources. On top of the penalties young people face through this system, like probation programs and incarceration, these kids and their families often rack up significant debt because they are billed for expenses like the daily costs of incarceration, court-appointed attorneys, probation supervision, and more. Families in Michigan are struggling with debt ranging from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A recent decision by Macomb County Circuit Court to discharge $84 million in such debt came after a year-long study showed that the majority of the court’s assessments go uncollected; that families who participated in the study had, on average, more than $87,000 in debt; that, like the State of Michigan overall, Black youth were overrepresented in Macomb County’s youth justice system; and that imposing fines and fees made it harder for probation supervisors to do their job.
This debt harms our community and should be eliminated from the system. For any family, financial debt is stressful. But this debt, on top of a family’s involvement with the juvenile justice system, is in direct conflict with the system’s goal of supporting and strengthening families. It leads to fractures in family relationships, since young people typically do not have the means to pay, leading their parents and guardians to take on the costs.
Families who start receiving these bills are also acutely aware that the debt accumulates with continued involvement in the juvenile justice system. So, court debt may make families less willing to report youth and family needs to stakeholders in the juvenile justice system who want to support them. Simply put, asking for help could mean deeper debt.
Importantly, juvenile court debt leaves families with less disposable wealth in the short term. Families can be placed on payment plans or have their wages docked, meaning they’re spending monthly income on court bills rather than in their communities, for years into the future. And ultimately, debt can rob young people of their ability to pursue education that would advance their career dreams, since the desperation to pay debt can drive them to skip out on high school or higher education to work off their debt.
In the NFL, when a rule no longer makes sense, it gets thrown out or replaced. Michigan policymakers have an urgent responsibility to pass a bill package that was introduced in the Michigan Legislature in June 2020 and would eliminate this system of debt. We cannot stay silent as families suffer under multigenerational debt for years, sometimes decades. We cannot be complacent about a system that limits opportunities for young people who still have so much potential to grow. Let’s choose to believe in and nurture our kids and be the village they deserve.
Trey Flowers is a Detroit Lions Outside Linebacker and Players Coalition supporter. He is also the founder of Flowers of the Future Foundation, a non-profit aimed at bettering youth development.
Anquan Boldin is a former NFL wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, Super Bowl champion, philanthropist and cofounder of the Players Coalition, a social justice non-profit.
*This story first appeared on The Detroit News