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Debt-Free Justice

A Bottom-Up Approach to Ending Juvenile Fees in California

By Stephanie Campos-Bui
Michael Rizo speaking with reporters about the impact juvenile fees had on his family
Figure 1. Michael Rizo speaking with reporters about the impact juvenile fees had on his family

Michael Rizo was 11 when he was first arrested. He cycled in and out of foster care, and when he was 13, he was arrested for burglary and detained in juvenile hall. The county charged his mother $40 every day he was in the hall. By the time Rizo turned 18, she owed the county over $25,000 in fees.

These bills only made it harder for Rizo and his family to get by. His mother had a steady job, but when she was laid off, she was forced to file for bankruptcy. The money was such a weight on Rizo’s family. Each time his mother received a bill in the mail, he said, “I felt like I was taking food away from my family’s table.

When he was finally released from the system in 2016—where he had racked up an additional $10,000 in fees assessed to him after he turned 18—Rizo struggled to find a job. After getting turned down for a fourth job in a single week, he hit a low. Rizo was out of money and was about to be homeless when he landed an internship with the Sacramento chapter of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He remains closely connected to this work while also working full-time for a hotel chain in downtown Sacramento (see fig. 1).

Stories such as Rizo’s drove a multiyear effort by legislative allies, community organizations, legal aid providers, and advocacy groups to make California the first state in the country to end the practice of charging harmful and regressive fees to families of youth in the juvenile justice system.

The Problem

Before 2018, California law authorized counties to charge families for their child’s detention, probation supervision, electronic monitoring, drug testing, and representation by a public defender. Within some statutory limits, county boards of supervisors determined which fees to charge and in what amounts.

In practice, the liability imposed on families varied widely. For example, families of youth serving typical probation conditions in Sacramento County faced nearly five times the dollar amount in fees more than faced by youth with those same conditions in neighboring San Joaquin County (see fig. 2).

Juvenile fees for a youth serving common probation conditions in California's 15 largest counties by population
Figure 2. Juvenile fees for a youth serving common probation conditions in California's 15 largest counties by population

State law required county financial evaluation officers to consider a family’s income, obligations, and dependents before assessing fees. Based on this determination of how much a family could pay, the financial evaluation officer would then petition the juvenile court to sign an order entering a civil judgment enforceable against the parent or guardian. Unpaid fees could be sent to the state Franchise Tax Board, which has the authority to intercept tax refunds, garnish wages, and levy bank accounts until the debt is paid off.

Under state law, these fees were meant to help protect the fiscal integrity of counties, yet research conducted by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law found that California’s juvenile fee practices were:

  1. harmful to youth, undermining the rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile justice system;
  2. often conducted unlawfully, as counties charged fees that violated state or federal law or failed to conduct an ability-to-pay process that met legal requirements or both; and
  3. costly because most families could not afford to pay the fees, and so counties collected a small percentage of what they charged, with most of what they collected going toward collection activity and not to supporting youth.

 

Stage 1: The Initial Response and Know Your Rights

Kate Weisburd and her students in the Youth Defender Clinic at UC Berkeley’s East Bay Community Law Center began representing young people in juvenile court in Alameda County in 2013. Almost immediately they observed that parents and guardians of their clients were being charged fees totaling several thousand dollars per family.

At that time East Bay Community Law Center was also piloting a new Policy Advocacy Clinic to tackle systemic social, racial, and economic injustice in the community. Weisburd asked the Policy Advocacy Clinic to help research the law, policies, and practices that authorized juvenile fees in the county.

On behalf of Youth Uprising, a neighborhood hub in East Oakland offering young people a wide range of services and programs, Policy Advocacy Clinic students researched the fee process in Alameda County to publish a know-your-rights pamphlet for families and an advising guide for case managers.

Students were shocked to find that families could be charged $25.29 per day for juvenile detention, $90 per month for probation supervision, $15 per day for electronic monitoring, $28.68 per drug test, and $300 for legal representation. For a youth serving average probation conditions in the county—not including the public defender fee—a family could be billed over $2,800.

Because youth of color are disproportionately arrested, detained, and punished in the juvenile system, fee amounts were especially burdensome for families of color. In Alameda County the family of a black youth serving average probation conditions was as liable for more than double the fees ($3,348) as the family of a white youth serving average probation conditions ($1,637) (see fig. 3).

Average juvenile probation conditions and fees by race and ethnicity in Alameda County (2013)
Figure 3. Average juvenile probation conditions and fees by race and ethnicity in Alameda County (2013)

In spite of state law requirements, Alameda County acknowledged that it had no written standards or guidelines upon which its financial evaluation officers performed ability-to-pay evaluations. In fact, one financial evaluation officer said that she made her decisions on the basis of whether a mother was lying, which she could determine by her purse. This was the outrage moment that fueled a reform effort.

Stage 2: County-Level Reform

On behalf of East Bay Community Law Center and advocates and juvenile defenders from East Bay Children’s Law Offices, the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and the Prison Law Office, the Policy Advocacy Clinic in 2014 began exploring what practices looked like across the state. Students surveyed the chief probation officers in all 58 California counties to determine what fees were being assessed against families and who made ability-to-pay determinations (judges, probation officers, etc.). As of March 2016, all but one of the 58 California counties charged one or more juvenile fees (see fig. 4).

Number of California's 58 counties that charged juvenile fees (as of March 2016)
Figure 4. Number of California's 58 counties that charged juvenile fees (as of March 2016)

San Francisco County never charged juvenile fees, and Los Angeles County placed a moratorium on the assessment of juvenile detention fees in 2009 after advocacy by the Youth Justice Coalition and coverage by the Los Angeles Times.

The Policy Advocacy Clinic focused on Alameda County because it was one of the few counties in the state that charged all fee types (including at least one—the investigation fee—that was not even authorized by state law). Students submitted Public Records Act requests to the County Board of Supervisors, Central Collections Agency, and Probation Department to understand their fee assessment and collection policies and practices.

The Policy Advocacy Clinic presented in 2015 findings about high harm to families and low financial gain for the county to the Public Protection Committee of the Board of Supervisors. In the event that the Board was not persuaded to act, students prepared a report documenting county practices. After the clinic’s presentation to the Public Protection Committee, Supervisors Richard Valle and Keith Carson wrote to the full Board of Supervisors a letter proposing a fee moratorium; they highlighted how families struggle to pay these fees: “Imposing this kind of debt on families induces economic and familial instability, which undermines the rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile justice system.” The Board in 2016 unanimously voted to impose an immediate moratorium on all juvenile fee assessment and collection; several months later Alameda County became the first in the state to enact a full fee repeal, garnering the attention of a federal court and the New York Times editorial board (see fig. 5).

Closed Financial Evaluation Office in Alameda County
Figure 5. Closed Financial Evaluation Office in Alameda County

By the end of 2016, other Bay Area counties had taken notice of the Alameda County fee repeal and followed suit. Juvenile Court Judge Katherine Lucero of Santa Clara County teamed up with Supervisor Mario Cortese to halt fees in Santa Clara County. The Contra Costa County Racial Justice Coalition and Reentry Solutions Group worked closely with Supervisor John Gioia to end the assessment and collection of all fees in Contra Costa County.

Stage 3: Statewide Repeal

The Western Center on Law and Poverty hired a researcher in 2015 to conduct surveys of California legal aid partners to identify criminal justice issues that were affecting their clients, and juvenile fees quickly bubbled to the top. Jessica Bartholow, one of the Western Center’s legislative advocates, heard similar concerns at an Alliance for Boys and Men of Color policy retreat from youth organizers who had advocated the juvenile detention fee moratorium in Los Angeles County.

Bartholow reached out to advocates across the state to see who was working on the issue. Youth advocates said it was not really a juvenile issue since parents and guardians were the ones being charged. Adult criminal justice advocates had not been tracking the issue because the fees were administrative, not criminal.

Coincidentally Bartholow had been scheduled to guest-lecture to Policy Advocacy Clinic students in fall 2015 and found out that the clinic was working on the issue. After considerable deliberation, the Western Center and the clinic began preparing the groundwork for a legislative campaign to repeal juvenile fees statewide.

The initial findings of high harm to families and low gain to counties were enough to pique the interest of Sen. Holly Mitchell, who introduced Senate Bill 941 in early 2016. The bill would have repealed county authority to assess and collect juvenile administrative fees statewide.

The Western Center joined the East Bay Community Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Youth Justice Coalition as cosponsors of the bill. Senate Bill 941 did not face any formal opposition, and it sailed through the Senate Public Safety Committee. But the bill died after being held in the Senate Appropriations Committee over fiscal concerns.

Senator Mitchell, with coauthor Sen. Ricardo Lara, introduced in 2017 a nearly identical juvenile fee repeal legislation, Senate Bill 190, as part of a larger equity and justice package. New cosponsors in the growing campaign to repeal juvenile fees included RYSE Youth Center, the W. Haywood Burns Institute, PolicyLink, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, Insight Center for Community Economic Development, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and Public Counsel. Senate Bill 190 was adopted as a priority bill by the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, the California Asset Building Coalition, and the California Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, and scores of nonprofit entities signed on as campaign supporters.

Youth from the Youth Justice Coalition testified about the impact the fees had on their families and their own well-being. Researchers from the Policy Advocacy Clinic and PolicyLink testified on the low economic impact of fee repeal on county budgets and the benefits to families (see fig. 6). Youth from the RYSE Youth Center created short videos to raise awareness about the bill and the issue. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice wrote blog pieces, and the Burns Institute shared data on the ways in which these fees tracked existing racial disparities in the juvenile system.

Members of the Youth Justice Coalition and Policy Advocacy clinic with Sen. Holly Mitchell
Figure 6. Members of the Youth Justice Coalition and Policy Advocacy clinic with Sen. Holly Mitchell

Some legislators nevertheless remained concerned with the impact that Senate Bill 190 would have on counties. The bill’s cosponsors knew that a potential compromise would be offered at some point, specifically around a fix to existing ability-to-pay provisions. The bill’s cosponsor groups had several difficult conversations about what victory and justice looked like for youth and families and decided early on in the campaign that justice would not be served by settling for a recrafting of ability-to-pay processes. Research by the Policy Advocacy Clinic had shown that not a single county could claim fee practices that were both fair and cost-effective. Counties either improperly charged low-income families and netted little revenue or fairly assessed families’ inability to pay and netted even less. And so when they were offered a compromise of that nature, the bill’s cosponsors and authors confidently declined.

Senate Bill 190 again received bipartisan support in the Senate Public Safety Committee, but county fiscal concerns persisted. W ith Senate leadership insisting on a compromise to reduce the cost of the bill, the cosponsors agreed to amendments that eliminated provisions that would have ended collection on previously assessed fees and vacated all outstanding judgments. Stopping all new fee assessments effective January 1, 2018, remained as the core of the bill, and the cosponsors were confident that many counties would end collection voluntarily—or that collection would collapse under the costs of collecting once new assessments were prohibited.

With the retroactive provisions removed, Senate Bill 190 cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee and passed the Senate Floor. The bill continued to receive bipartisan support in the Assembly—during the two years it was considered, only the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors registered formal opposition—and, in October 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 190 into law along with six other juvenile justice bills authored by Senators Mitchell and Lara (see fig. 7).

embers of cosponsor organizations and friends celebrating the passage of Senate Bill 190
Figure 7. Members of cosponsor organizations and friends celebrating the passage of Senate Bill 190

Stage 4: Implementation and Impact

Senate Bill 190 was enacted to end regressive and racially discriminatory juvenile fee practices. In late 2017 some of the cosponsors sent to key stakeholders in every county an implementation packet outlining their obligations under Senate Bill 190. Beyond ending the assessment of juvenile fees prospectively, the cosponsors urged counties to end juvenile fee collection, discharge previously assessed fees, and refund families who paid unlawfully assessed fees. The Policy Advocacy Clinic submitted a Public Records Act request in January 2018 to each county; the requests sought documentation about steps the counties were taking on fee assessment, collection, discharge, and refunds.

We are still very early in the implementation phase, but preliminary results seem promising. To date, we have verified that all counties have formally ended fee assessments. This is not a small feat in a state the size of California, with counties having from 1,100 to 10 million residents.

Moreover, while Senate Bill 190 required counties to end juvenile fee assessment only, at least 22 California counties have ended fee collection without reporting any negative consequences. To date, these counties have waived more than 190,000 accounts totaling more than $200 million. At the same time, at least 24 counties continue to collect previously assessed fees, and the numbers are staggering, with over half a million outstanding accounts totaling over a quarter of a billion dollars.

The picture on full discharge of prior debt is less clear. Several counties have moved to relieve parents and guardians of fee agreements and civil judgments, which can impair a family’s ability to secure housing, jobs, and credit. We expect to learn more about fee record clearing as the process moves forward.

Contra Costa County has taken the lead statewide in refunding families for payments made on fees that were unlawfully assessed. The county has identified hundreds of such cases and has begun mailing checks to families. In our research, we found widespread unlawful practices—insufficient ability-to-pay determinations, fees not authorized by law or in amounts higher than statutory maximums, fees assessed against youth who were found not delinquent, and charges for meals for which the counties were being reimbursed by the federal government. We know that most counties will likely refund families only in the face of threatened or actual litigation.

Lessons Learned

Only months after Senate Bill 190 went into effect, we are still amazed that it happened and are working hard to undo all of the harm of juvenile fees. We can share some of what we have learned thus far.

Involve Affected People in Reform Campaigns

Policy reform often comes from the top down. Even well-researched legislation can result in unintended consequences that are sometimes worse than the status quo. Senator Mitchell and the cosponsor group prioritized involving affected youth, such as Rizo, and their families at every stage of the campaign, from defining what justice looked like, to sharing their stories with researchers and state and local policymakers. In line with the principles of community lawyering, we have repeatedly observed that local success at persuading counties to take the most remedial fee repeal measures correlates directly with the level of youth and family involvement in advocacy efforts.

Do not Shy away from Race

Time and time again, various stakeholders suggested not to lead with the racial disparity argument and in some cases not to mention it at all. But to do so would be ignoring a key piece of the harm and the reality of affected communities. While charging fees to any youth and the youth’s family creates economic strain and other negative social outcomes, the impact is particularly acute for youth of color given persistent structural inequities in our society. While the argument of minimal fiscal gain was often enough to win over certain audiences, the cosponsors and Senator Mitchell felt strongly that we not only be unafraid to talk about race but also place it front and center.

Follow-through Is as Important as the Victory

As much as the success of Senate Bill 190 lies with the passage of the bill, the real success will take place during implementation. Advocacy groups do not often have the resources and capacity to monitor and enforce local responses to newly enacted legislation, especially when no state entity is clearly in charge of holding actors accountable. The cosponsors’ implementation strategies—communicating to counties what the law requires, asking counties to document their response to the law, collaborating with local advocates to push for compliance and beyond—have paid big dividends so far, even if much more work remains to be done.

Situate Any Campaign Within Larger Reform Efforts

Juvenile fees are just one piece of a juvenile system that targets and overly punishes youth of color; ending them will not be a magic bullet. At the same time a victory on juvenile fees can push local and state actors to think more broadly about how we treat youth and their families throughout the system. Likewise, reform in the juvenile space can spur a rethinking in the adult system. We have already seen counties extend the logic of Senate Bill 190 to other aspects of the juvenile system, and we have seen counties consider fee repeals for adults by using language and framing from the Senate Bill 190 campaign.

***

Early on, a group of public policy students at the Goldman School at UC Berkeley estimated that ending juvenile fees would net to society a benefit of around $5.5 million in Alameda County alone. With fees no longer a part of the calculus for juvenile courts and probation departments across the state, we can only imagine what the net benefit will be for families and communities in the years to come.

But more important, we look forward to watching a system move away from costly collateral consequences and toward its stated goal of helping youth successfully reenter their schools and communities.

Stephanie Campos-Bui

Stephanie Campos-Bui
Clinical Supervising Attorney

Policy Advocacy Clinic
UC Berkeley School of Law
341 Boalt Hall (North Addition)
Berkeley, CA 94720
510.643.4624
scamposbui@law.berkeley.edu

 

 

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