Op-Ed: California needs to end all collection on juvenile detention fees
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote this month to cancel nearly $90 million in fees imposed on families that have had children in the juvenile detention system.
The board directed the Los Angeles County Probation Department in May to come up with a plan for eliminating the outstanding fees following last year’s passage of Senate Bill 190, which ended the practice of charging parents for the costs of juvenile detention statewide.
But although SB 190 ended the charging of new fees, it did not forgive fees charged in previous years.
If the board votes to end all collection, L.A. will join 28 counties that have relieved tens of thousands of families of nearly $225 million in old fees. That’s the good news.
Unfortunately, despite the harm and costs of the practice, 29 counties in California are still trying to collect more than $150 million in previously charged fees.
In fact, according to data obtained by the law clinic I direct at UC Berkeley, $125 million in fees are still being actively collected in just four counties in Southern California.
Counties still billing families for old fees should end all collection activity immediately.
Orange County continues to collect more than $38 million in juvenile fees from families, even though it was chastised by a federal appeals court in 2016 for forcing a single mother to sell her home and chasing her into bankruptcy. After the court ordered Orange County to discharge her debt, the county acknowledged that it was still pursuing fees from dozens of families in bankruptcy. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the county spent 85 cents of every dollar in fee revenue on collection costs.
Riverside County is still collecting more than $15 million in juvenile fees, including for clothing. Before the enactment of SB 190, the county said it was collecting about $360,000 per year in detention fees, or less than 3% of its total outstanding fees.
San Diego County continues to collect more than $63 million in juvenile fees, even though Chief Probation Officer Adolfo Gonzales signed a 2017 statement that recommended “eliminating or significantly curtailing charging supervision fees” as a way to reduce the number of people on probation and parole.
Santa Barbara County, which registered the only formal opposition to SB 190, is still collecting more than $9 million in juvenile fees. The county estimated that it will collect $300,000 this fiscal year, or little more than 3% of its outstanding fees. We don’t know how much the county is spending to generate this revenue, but it would not be alone in spending as much as, if not more than, it is collecting.
Without the ability to charge new juvenile fees, collection rates and net revenue will decline. Many counties are likely to continue aggressive collection activity against vulnerable families, including garnishing their wages, levying their bank accounts and intercepting their tax refunds.
What’s more, we found that fees generated little revenue after collection costs, since most families with children in the system cannot afford to pay them. And because children from families of color are arrested and punished disproportionately, such families bear a much heavier burden than others.
We also found that counties routinely charged fees in violation of state and federal laws. Counties charged unauthorized fees — including to parents whose children were not found to be delinquent — and routinely failed to assess families’ ability to pay the fees.
Counties still billing families for old fees should end all collection activity immediately. And all counties, including L.A. County, should refund families for payments they made on any unlawfully charged fees.
If counties insist on collecting old fees, state lawmakers should enact legislation to put an end to the practice.
As L.A. joins half the state’s counties in demonstrating why children and their families deserve debt-free justice, other counties should follow its example and end the collection of these regressive and racially discriminatory fees.
Jeffrey Selbin is a clinical professor of law and director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, which has published two studies of juvenile fees in California.
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