May 17, 2017 / 8:05 PM / 2 years ago

Juvenile-detention fees hurt kids, families

(Reuters Health) - When children get locked up in California for any offense from shoplifting to murder, most counties charge their parents little-known fees for housing, food, lawyers, drug-testing and electronic monitoring.

But the charges - as much as $5,640 for an average 25-day sentence - do more harm than good, a recent report suggests.

“These fees are harmful, unlawful and costly in California,” said lead author Stephanie Campos-Bui, an attorney with the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. “These fees need to be ended.”

Parents have been billed thousands of dollars in fees even after their kids are judged not guilty - a practice the report says persists although it violates the law.

The report, titled “Making Families Pay,” is just “one more in a recent line of studies that have shown that these kinds of fees do more harm than good,” said Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, who was not involved with the study.

“The fees harm the kids, they harm the families, and they ultimately harm the communities,” he said in a phone interview.

The result of a three-year investigation, the report details how the fees undermine the juvenile-justice system’s rehabilitative purpose by burdening already struggling families and by disproportionately hurting poor families of color.

It documents how the fees - assessed in states throughout the nation - force families to choose between paying them, paying rent or buying food and other necessities.

At the same time, the report shows that the fees frequently cost counties more to collect than they bring in, and counties generally collect just a small fraction of what they bill.

Moreover, though California law requires the juvenile-justice system to work to “preserve and strengthen the minor’s family ties,” the fees strain relationships between detained youth and their families and weaken the ties, the report found.

An Alameda County father faced having his wages garnished to pay for his son’s detention.

“Will that make me a better father?” he asked in a 2015 interview with one of the researchers. “Will that make me a better person? No. It will make me more angry at my son.”

A proposed law would stop the practice of charging the fees anywhere in the state. But the fees extend well beyond California.

“As much as I am outraged by California’s way of doing things, other states are worse,” Campos-Bui said in a phone interview. In some states, she said, children are forced to remain on probation until their families pay off the fees.

Over the past year, five California counties quit billing the fees. One of the five, Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, spent $450,000 to collect $400,000.

Los Angeles County spent nearly $13,000 trying to get $1,000 from a grandmother living on Social Security benefits.

Some U.S. municipalities were believed to have begun charging the fees in the 1970s, when they suspected parents of dropping off their kids at juvenile facilities because they could no longer manage them. But Campos-Bui said she turned up no “evidence that parents were using juvenile hall as some type of babysitting service.”

The report did find evidence of racial and ethnic inequities. The family of a black youth serving average probation conditions was liable for more than double the fees as the family of a white youth serving average probation conditions. And the family of a Latino youth serving average probation conditions was liable for one and a half times more than the family of a white youth.

At the same time, black children are four times more likely to be arrested and seven times more likely to be detained than white children in California, the report says.

“The majority of these kids are relatively poor, minorities, and they do not have the resources to pay these fees,” Piquero said.

“There is significant harm to all families going through the system. But families of color bear a higher burden than white families,” Campos-Bui said. “You’re setting up these kids to fail.”

Maria Rivera sold her house to pay $9,500 toward her $16,372 debt to Orange County for her son’s detention and lawyer, the report says. When the county pursued the balance of the debt, Rivera filed for bankruptcy. Nonetheless, the county continued to pursue the debt - until a federal court admonished it to stop.

In its ruling last year, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called the fees “a tax upon distress” and condemned them for taking “advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable.”

SOURCE: University of California Berkeley Law Policy Clinic, online May 1, 2017.

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