Juvenile Justice System Promises Rehabilitation, Delivers Crippling Debt to California Youth

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The effects of our justice system extend beyond the walls of prison, jail or juvenile hall. Justice involvement erects numerous lifelong barriers to housing, education, employment and financial stability. One such barrier is the imposition of fines and fees, which needlessly burden reentry and harm already vulnerable families.

These financial penalties, though onerous for adults, are particularly problematic when levied against young people. This month, members of the California State Assembly are considering groundbreaking legislation that would eliminate juvenile administrative fees statewide.

Juvenile justice fees, which can total hundreds or thousands of dollars, profoundly impact the stability of a family, straining relationships and preventing crucial investment in education, medical care or treatment services. For low-income families in particular, fees draw scarce resources away from basic needs, exacerbating poverty and inviting crisis.

Given the ways in which fines and fees can disrupt family life and impose economic strain, it is unsurprising that the burden of juvenile justice debt increases a young person’s chances of reentering the system. A recent study found that repayment rates for fines and fees were low, but that their very assessment increased a young person’s likelihood of being convicted of a new offense in either juvenile or adult court within two years. The authors of the study also discovered stark racial disparities in the accumulation of fee debt, with youth of color significantly more likely to face unpaid debt at case closing than white youth.

The authority granted to courts and local agencies to impose such fees varies across the United States, but every state permits the collection of some kind of payment for a young person’s involvement in the juvenile justice system. A recent nationwide review of the various fines and fees resulting from juvenile justice system contact found that 20 states allow youth to be billed for the cost of probation or other supervision, while 47 states can charge for the “cost of care,” which includes food, clothing, programming or medical costs incurred while a young person was in custody.

Though some jurisdictions consider a family’s ability to pay before imposing such fees, these tests can be flawed or improperly administered. Such errors present low-income families with an impossible choice: providing for their children or repaying the debt. A failure to pay can be devastating, with consequences that can include driver’s license revocation, incarceration, compounding fines, wage garnishment or eviction.

In California, state law permits counties to bill a young person’s family for the cost of their justice system involvement, including their legal representation, juvenile hall detention, electronic monitoring, probation supervision and drug testing. Currently, nine in 10 California counties charge these fees. But that could change with the passage of Senate Bill 190, which will end the assessment of juvenile administrative fees statewide. State sens. Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara introduced the bill in recognition of the ways juvenile administrative fees punish vulnerable families, exacerbate the harms of systems involvement and undermine the rehabilitative intent of the juvenile justice system. It has received broad bipartisan support at every legislative hurdle and is fast approaching a consequential vote in the State Assembly.

SB 190 builds on the success of local reform efforts throughout the state. In Alameda County, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, researchers discovered that the annual cost of assessing and collecting juvenile administrative fees cost the county more than 60 percent of the revenue ultimately generated from them. Furthermore, Alameda County was charging probation-supervised African-American youth an average of $3,438, compared to $1,637 for white youth.

These findings, paired with a coordinated campaign led by community groups, compelled the county to end the assessment and collection of these fees in 2016. Alameda now joins Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Francisco and other California counties in limiting the imposition of harmful juvenile fees.

Juvenile justice is premised on rehabilitation, but fines and fees undermine this goal by making it harder for young people to access the treatment and support they need to thrive. We know what works in juvenile justice: reducing the barriers to successful reintegration. California and states across the U.S. must abolish punitive fines and fees and recommit to the principle of second chances.

Maureen Washburn is a member of the Policy and Communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

One thought on “Juvenile Justice System Promises Rehabilitation, Delivers Crippling Debt to California Youth

  1. The Fines are Absolutely Ridiculous. I was Billed for 3500 dollars…whuch only included 2 minths out if 5 minths for my sons Incarceration! I paid the bill however, Conditions are Deplorable!
    I am writing to rhe Editor of San Diego Union Tribune which Featured a Syory on The Front PAGE of Last Sundays Paper..stating how the Juvenile System is working by Curbing Numbers.
    My son was in the ER for a Drug overdose he called his PO never to get a Call Back!!
    He Over Dosed Again a month Later I finally was able to Connect with his PO.