The California Legislature should pass Senate Bill 190 and lead a national movement to end the practice of charging parents for the costs of children being in the juvenile justice system. Under current law, counties can charge parents or guardians for detaining minors, as well as for electronic monitors, substance use testing, probation, and home supervision. Such charges yield little net revenue or benefit for the government, but impose enormous financial burdens on families.
Over the last year, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Sonoma and Sacramento counties have eliminated these fees, as have cities elsewhere in the country, such as Philadelphia and Kansas City. San Francisco County has never charged such fees and Los Angeles County put a moratorium on them in 2009.
Counties aggressively seek to collect these fees, even from families with little in assets and even where there is no real likelihood of collecting. Santa Clara County in one year spent $450,000 in collection efforts that netted it $400,000.
But most counties in California still impose these costs despite overwhelming evidence that they serve little purpose and impose great harm, disproportionately on African-American and Latino families. Some counties even impose these costs on juveniles who have been found innocent of the charges against them, something which the U.S. Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional.
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Senate Bill 190, introduced in January by state senators Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara, would eliminate the ability of counties in California to charge anyone under the age of 21 – and their families – for the costs of involvement in the juvenile justice system. Tens of thousands of youths are placed in the juvenile justice system in California each year. The vast majority are boys between ages 15 and 17. More than 70 percent of them are African-American and Latino. White teenagers are about 20 percent of the juvenile population.
The costs imposed on families can be huge. Until Sacramento County eliminated its fees in April, a day in juvenile hall cost a family $18.40. A family whose child was under supervision by a probation officer was charged $206 per month, and families were charged $24 a day, or more than $600 a month, for an ankle monitor. In San Luis Obispo County, the cost of detention is $40 per day. In Yolo County, an electronic monitor costs $30 per day. Families often end up owing thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. In Sacramento County, studies showed that families could be billed $5,640 for a youth serving average probation conditions.
Counties aggressively seek to collect these fees, even from families with little in assets and even where there is no real likelihood of collecting. When families can’t pay, wages can be garnished. Credit scores are irreparably hurt. Counties notify the California Franchise Tax Board and it can intercept tax refunds owed to the family and take legal actions against the parents. It is not unusual for families to have to sell their houses to pay the debt or to file for bankruptcy to try and have it discharged.
Besides the basic unfairness of charging parents for the costs of the government’s juvenile justice system, imposing the fees yields little benefit. When Sacramento County was debating eliminating the fees, a study revealed that the county was owed $23.1 million in outstanding fees, but collected only $385,500 in the prior fiscal year. Santa Clara County in one year spent $450,000 in collection efforts that netted it $400,000.
Significant debt, with long-term consequences, is often imposed on those who have the least ability to pay. The fees often are imposed in a discriminatory fashion. A report by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at University of California, Berkeley Law School found that the family of an African-American teenager serving typical probation was liable for more than double the juvenile administrative fees ($3,438) as the family of a white teen serving probation ($1,637). The family of a Latino youth on probation was liable for more than one and a half times the fees ($2,563) as the family of a white teen on probation.
This is a problem that the California Legislature can and must fix. Parents should not be charged for the costs incurred by their children in the juvenile justice system. All debts that are owed for this – and there are millions of dollars that never will be collected – should be excused. Money that was collected illegally or in violation of the Constitution should be refunded.
In ending new charges, SB 190 would be an essential step in the right direction and should be passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Erwin Chemerinsky is dean and professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.