Time to end injustice in juvenile justice system
Maria Rivera was a single mother raising two boys in Orange County when her youngest got into trouble. In 2008, he became one of tens of thousands of youth — disproportionately black and brown — who are referred annually into the state’s juvenile justice system, where he spent more than a year in detention.
Then came the bills.
Ms. Rivera was charged $23.90 for every day her son was detained and $2,200 for his court-appointed lawyer. All told, Orange County said she owed more than $16,000.
State law authorizes counties to charge families administrative fees for children’s detention, lawyers, supervision and electronic monitoring. The fees are supposed to help counties recoup some of their costs, but they are also required to determine whether families can afford to pay the fees.
Ms. Rivera was unemployed and unable to make payments, so Orange County should have waived her fees. But the law puts the burden on families to show inability to pay. Like many families with youth in the juvenile system, Ms. Rivera was unable to meet the county’s demands to make such a showing.
Instead, Ms. Rivera sold her house and paid the county $9,500. The county was still not satisfied, and obtained a court judgment against her for almost $10,000 (exceeding what she owed by more than $3,000 for reasons the county never explained).
Once a court orders the fees to be paid, the debt becomes a civil judgment enforceable against the parent or guardian. Unlike most other civil judgments, juvenile fee debt lasts forever. If families fail to repay the debt, counties refer their accounts to the state Franchise Tax Board to intercept tax refunds and garnish wages.
As a result of the court order against her, Ms. Rivera filed for bankruptcy. Her juvenile fee nightmare appeared to be over when a bankruptcy court discharged her debt to Orange County. But the county would not relent, persuading the bankruptcy court to reinstate the debt.
In our research, we found that counties pursue fee debt aggressively, even if they net little or no revenue. In Orange County, 85 cents of every dollar in fee revenue pays for collection activity against other families, not for services to youth. Before it stopped charging juvenile fees last year, Santa Clara County spent more money on collection activity than it generated in revenue.
Since black and brown youth are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, even after accounting for alleged offenses, fee debt falls hardest on families of color who are less likely to have the resources to satisfy these debts. In Alameda County, we found that the average African American family faced double the juvenile fee liability as the average white family; Latino families faced one and a half times the liability of white families.
Our research mirrors studies of criminal justice debt in both the adult and juvenile systems, where sociologists and criminologists have found that such debt compounds disadvantage by reducing income, limiting opportunities and increasing recidivism.
Under pressure from local advocates because of the regressive and racially discriminatory burden of juvenile debt on vulnerable families, California counties are starting to end the practice. In the last 18 months, several large counties have stopped charging and collecting juvenile fees, relieving tens of thousands of families of more than $40 million in debt.
But most counties, including Orange, still impose such debt on families, resulting in significant consequences. In Ms. Rivera’s case, a federal appeals court eventually decided that her juvenile fees were dischargeable in bankruptcy. While relieving her of the remaining debt, Ms. Rivera prevailed only after spending several years in court and losing her home.
Sensitive to the harms that can result from such practices, the appeals court chastised Orange County for actions that “compromise the goals of juvenile correction and the best interests of the child, and, ironically, impair the ability of his mother to provide him with future support.”
While court victories can help individuals like Ms. Rivera, and local reform is important, families across California are still liable for juvenile fee debt.
Even after the court case, the Probation Department said that 44 families who were in (or had recently exited) bankruptcy still owed Orange County almost $190,000 in juvenile fee debt.
Fortunately, California can make juvenile fees a thing of the past. Sens. Holly Mitchell, D-San Diego, and Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, introduced Senate Bill 190 to repeal county authority to charge juvenile fees. The bill received bipartisan support in the Senate, and is one committee vote from reaching the floor of the Assembly.
The Legislature and governor have an opportunity to end this injustice for all California families.
Jeffrey Selbin is a Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at U.C. Berkeley School of Law and co-author of “Making Families Pay: The Harmful, Unlawful, and Costly Practice of Charging Juvenile Administrative Fees in California.” Abbye Atkinson is an Assistant Professor of Law at U.C. Berkeley School of Law and was the Thomas C. Grey Fellow and Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School; she is the author of “Consumer Bankruptcy, Nondischargeability, and Penal Debt.”
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