Sacramento County supervisors quietly took a significant step toward fairer justice this week by voting to stop charging fees to families of juvenile offenders.
According to a recent UC Berkeley study, Sacramento County has among the highest fees in the state – about $550 a month for juvenile hall, $206 a month for probation supervision, $725 a month for electronic monitoring and $20 for each drug test.
Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale and Public Defender Paulino Durán recommended the move to the board, noting that while the county has reduced the numbers in juvenile detention or on probation, black and brown youths are still over-represented.
There’s also a better understanding that many of these juveniles come from poor families, and that these fees add up quickly for families struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table. Recent research shows that creates more stress for families and can lead to more kids in trouble.
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Because the families are so poor, most of the fees never get paid. The resolution approved Tuesday by the board also writes off as much as $23.2 million in uncollected debt.
This move does come at a cost. When the fees end July 1, that means a loss of $385,500 from the Probation Department and Public Defender’s Office that may have to be made up, though Seale says his department can cover the revenue cut.
The county started charging most of the fees in 2005 to discourage parents from taking advantage of the system to care for youths who were getting into trouble but not committing serious crimes.
But the tough-on-crime at all costs philosophy has changed with criminal justice reform. Pushed by advocacy groups, several other counties have also recently repealed the fees, including Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles and Santa Clara.
The Legislature is debating Senate Bill 190, introduced by Sens. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, which would end the fees in all counties. Better yet, each county should look at its own budget situation and eventually reach the same conclusion:
When it comes to youths who have gone off track, punishing their families with fees they can’t afford to pay is self-defeating and unjust.