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L.A. County to stop collecting old juvenile detention fees, erasing nearly $90 million of families' debt

L.A. County to stop collecting old juvenile detention fees, erasing nearly $90 million of families' debt
Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles is shown in 2014. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to stop collecting fees once charged to families of juvenile delinquents for their incarceration, ending a practice decried by criminal justice advocates as an unfair tax on minorities and an ineffective means of rehabilitating young people who commit crimes.

The motion, sponsored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn, directs the county’s Probation Department to stop accepting payment and cancel nearly $90 million in juvenile detention fees assessed before 2009, when the department suspended new fees but continued to collect payment of old ones.

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The vote also follows a statewide ban, which took effect Jan. 1, on a range of court costs and fees charged to parents and guardians of children in the juvenile justice system.

Almost every state in the country allows youth or their families to be charged for costs of the youths’ detention, supervision or care while in custody, according to an analysis by the Juvenile Law Center, a public-interest law firm in Philadelphia.

Even after California’s ban, many counties are still collecting payment of previously assessed fees.

“The [state] legislation helps youth and families who haven’t yet experienced fines and fees, but without this kind of move at the county level, children and their families will still be struggling,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center.

L.A. County’s move comes amid a national shift in thinking about criminal justice with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“This is in the context of the post-Ferguson era where there’s a lot more attention to fines and fees in the criminal justice system in general,” Jeffrey Selbin, director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, said in an interview ahead of the vote. The clinic has extensively studied the use of juvenile fees in California.

Supervisors said Tuesday that collection of the fees no longer makes sense.

“It is simply not worth the cost and effort to the county — and more importantly, not worth the cost to families — to continue with these collection payments,” Solis said.

Before 2009, L.A. County’s Probation Department regularly charged parents and guardians of juvenile delinquents fees for some of the costs associated with their child’s detention. At the time, the fee was $23.63 a day for juvenile halls and $11.94 a day for probation camps. Collection efforts included intercepting state tax refunds, putting liens on property and, in some cases, garnishing wages.

In 2009, in response to pressure from the Youth Justice Coalition and a Times investigation, the Probation Department placed a moratorium on the fees, though it continued to accept payments on pre-2009 bills.

Those payments amounted to just $120,000 in 2017, out of a total of $89 million in outstanding debt across 52,000 accounts, according to the department.

Research shows that juvenile detention fees impose financial hardships and strain on low-income families and weigh disproportionately on black and Latino youth who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and are often sentenced to longer terms than white youth.

Alberto Penuelas, who served time as a juvenile, recalled the toll his detention fee took on his mother, a single parent who worked in the fields.

“They would call her every Saturday collecting these debts.… She could barely afford to feed us,” he told the board. “I’m hoping that this passes and this doesn’t happen to other families.”

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Research also suggests the fees may increase recidivism. A study of more than 1,000 youth in Pennsylvania found that the total amount of fines, fees and/or restitution significantly increased the likelihood of recidivism within two years, even after controlling for demographics and case characteristics.

“The two main purposes of the juvenile justice system are to rehabilitate kids and to protect public safety, and it turns out these fees undermine both of those,” said Selbin of UC Berkeley.

Selbin said L.A. County’s action Tuesday is the largest discharge of such debt anywhere.

“We hope this will be a signal to other counties,” he said.

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