Parents won't have to foot bill for kids' stints in juvenile hall

By Ellen Garrison 

UPDATED APRIL 28, 2017 5:51 PM

The Sacramento Bee

​Sacramento County has stopped charging parents whose kids live in juvenile hall, part of a growing movement to end fees that fall disproportionately on low-income and minority families who struggle to pay. The county for years had charged parents for the cost of detainment, supervision, drug tests and public defenders.

Sacramento County supervisors this month repealed the fees – at the unusual request of the probation and public defender departments that received some of those revenues. The county also will clear outstanding debt owed by families. Agencies have charged parents more as a deterrent than to raise money, stemming from an old belief that families with troubled, but not criminal, children relied on juvenile hall to solve their problems. 

Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale said he wants children released from custody to have every opportunity to succeed. Imposing a financial burden on their parents, he said, makes that more difficult. “We want to ensure that ... (once) they leave our custody, if we’re talking about juvenile hall, that they don’t return,” Seale said. 

But a bill from the county can cause immense stress on families who should be focusing on supporting a child just released from custody, said Tim Kline, a law student with the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley. The clinic has researched fees in the juvenile justice system for three years. “It draws any available income away from positive spending habits,” Kline said. “They have to make serious changes.” Failing to pay can result in garnished wages and bad credit scores, which seriously hurt a family’s financial stability, Kline said. 

He said the Berkeley clinic has worked with a woman who debated putting her grandchild up for adoption because she couldn’t pay the fees and a young girl who considered running away because she thought it would relieve her mother of having to pay the fees. Both Kline and Seale noted that juvenile justice fees impact minority and low-income families in particular because their children are disproportionately incarcerated.

In Sacramento County, a day in juvenile hall costs a family $18.50. A family whose child was under supervision by a probation officer was charged $206 per month. An ankle monitor costs $725. The fees, which increased in 2005, were some of the highest among large California counties. The department wasn’t receiving most of what it was billing anyway, according to a staff report. The county’s debt collection department reported the county was owed $23.1 million in juvenile detention and defense fees from the last four decades as of February. 

After The Washington Post last month examined the practice in cities and counties across the country, officials in Philadelphia canceled their fees. In California, at least five counties have stopped charging fees since the Policy Advocacy Clinic began its research. As the issue has gained prominence, other elected leaders are taking notice. California state Sens. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, have written Senate Bill 190 eliminating the fees statewide. 

While families owed $23.1 million in juvenile justice fees, the county only expected to net $385,500 in the fiscal year that ends June 30. Seale said the hole in his department’s budget will be handled by cost-cutting elsewhere. The department’s costs for housing youth offenders have also gone down in recent years because of a decrease in the number of kids incarcerated at juvenile hall, he said. Kline said he thinks a lot of credit should be given to departments that ended the fees after realizing their harmful effects. 

“One thing that I think is notable in Sacramento County is that this proposal came from the Probation Department,” Kline said, which stands to make money off the fees. “That speaks a lot to the fact that these fees have served no valuable purpose.” 

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison 

This story was originally published April 26, 2017 5:00 PM.