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California lawmakers are fighting fees that trap kids in the juvenile justice system

Kids and their families are drowning in debt.

CREDIT: iStock
CREDIT: iStock

When kids in California enter the juvenile justice system, their families can end up owing thousands of dollars for court and detention fees, even if they have no ability to pay. While several counties stopped collecting the fees in the past year, a state senate committee is convening next week to consider whether or not all expenses imposed on juveniles and their guardians should be cut statewide.

Under California’s current Government Code, individual counties have authority to charge parents or guardians for the costs of feeding and housing minors in detention, as well as electronic monitors, substance abuse testing, probation, and home supervision. On March 21, the Senate Public Safety Committee is holding a hearing on a bill that would prevent anyone under the age of 21 — and their families — from having to shell out money for involvement in the juvenile justice system. Introduced in January by State Sens. Holly Mitchell (D) and Ricardo Lara (D), the bill would prevent an untold number of people from incurring massive debt in a system that’s intended to be rehabilitative.

“These fees run counter to the overall purpose of a fair juvenile justice system,” Sen. Mitchell told the Chronicle of Social Change. “The primary goal should always be to help juvenile offenders reenter society so they can be productive and successful.”

When families can’t cover the expenses in California counties, the money is taken out of what little income they have, according to Kate Weisburd, director of the the East Bay Community Law Center’s Youth Defender Clinic. A state tax franchise board is alerted about the debt for wage garnishment.

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But the fees shouldn’t be looked at “in isolation,” Weisburd said. Families also have to pay victim restitution and restitution fines.

“So if families, for example, pay off their court fees first but don’t pay off the victim restitution, then young people can end up staying in the juvenile court system much, much longer,” she said. “It’s just…being in this web of rules for that much longer; subject to searches without warrants, searches without reasonable suspicion, drug testing, curfew — a lot of really intrusive restrictions on their life.”

Young people are more likely to recidivate when crippled by debt.

Those who fall into the debt trap tend to be low-income people of color.

Lawmakers who support the fees say the money is supposed to compensate for what the county spends on a young person in the system. Others have viewed the fees as a deterrent, arguing that parents will work harder to keep their kids out of trouble. But juvenile policy advocates argue that the sums of money earned off of families that can’t pay the fees amount to a tiny fraction of counties’ annual budgets.

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In 2016, Santa Clara and Alameda Counties eliminated the fees after researchers discovered how little revenue they were generating up while still punishing youth and their families. Before the policy shift, a young person could die or be found innocent in Alameda County, and the family would still have to pay.

Sens. Mitchell and Lara championed juvenile justice reform in previous years. Last year, Mitchell passed a bill that would require minors in the commercial sex trade be treated as victims of sex trafficking, not charged with a crime. In 2015, Lara passed a bill that makes it free for people under the age of 26 to get their records sealed. Last year, he introduced a bill to ensure juveniles have access to legal counsel prior to speaking with police in custody, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the legislation.

A recent investigation by the Marshall Project revealed the scope of the debt incurred from juvenile system involvement nationwide. Nineteen states have laws on the books that allow the state itself to charge parents, and California is one of 28 states with laws permitting counties to do so. Every state has its own penalties for not paying up, including but not limited to revoking driver’s licenses, deducting money from parents’ wages, and charging interest.

In its 2016 report entitled “Debtors’ Prison for Kids?”, the Juvenile Law Center revealed additional ways that young people suffer from their families’ inability to pay. Many have their detention or probation time extended, as they do in California, while some are sent to a juvenile facility if they weren’t already placed in one. Others are unable to get their records expunged, denied rehabilitative treatment, refused driver’s licenses, and forced to skip school or work because of court appearances. There is also the possibility that they’ll be removed from their families altogether, because parents have their guardianship threatened.

Young people are also more likely to recidivate when crippled by debt.