It’s self-defeating to bill parents for their children’s jail time

On the surface, it looks like West Sacramento native Michael Rizo has repaid his debt to society.

After cycling in and out of foster care since he was a toddler, Rizo got caught up in gangs and robberies. Stints in juvenile hall followed, and at 17, he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in the California Youth Authority for a fight with a rival gang member.

Rizo got out last spring and he’s now 21. He landed a job with the Anti Recidivism Coalition to help young people like him transition back into their community. He’s majoring in sociology at Sacramento City College, and he’s volunteering to help the homeless. “Helping people feels way better than fighting,” he said.

But Rizo’s debt is not yet repaid. He says his grandmother owed $25,000 in administrative fees, which are charged to parents and guardians of young people who are incarcerated in county juvenile halls across the state. She was laid off and eventually declared bankruptcy, and only then were the fees reduced to $2,500, Rizo said.

California law allows counties to charge parents for every night their child is locked up, for renting ankle monitors, for alcohol and drug tests, for public defenders and for other costs. The fees are meant to help counties recoup their costs, without being excessive or unfair.

State Sens. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, have put forward Senate Bill 190, which has a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Public Safety Committee, to end these fees. They say the fees do more harm than good because they are levied on some of the most vulnerable families in our state, often forcing them to choose between paying the debt or for basic necessities.

The financial burden often fuel anger and resentment with adults in young people’s lives, harming the very relationships that help keep them out of trouble.

These harms are rarely offset by the revenue to fund county operations, as described by a report by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley on juvenile detention fees in Alameda County. Alameda soon eliminated the fees, as did Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties.

But 80 percent of counties still charge the fees, according to the Policy Advocacy Clinic. The fees range from a total of about $950 in San Joaquin, $1,300 in Fresno, $2,150 in San Diego and $5,600 in Sacramento, based on 25 days in detention, 17 months on probation, 50 days of electronic monitoring and eight drug tests, according to a study being released later this month.

San Francisco is the only county that has never done so, and San Francisco Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance says that decision likely contributes to the county’s success in reducing delinquency referrals by 50 percent and the juvenile hall population by 43 percent over the past six years.

The odds are against Rizo and other young people when they leave juvenile hall, and these fees only worsen their chances. It’s time for the state to put families before fees.

Anne Stuhldreher directs The Financial Justice Project for the city and county of San Francisco and is a fellow at New America. She can be contacted at