Families in California will no longer be forced to pay juvenile detention fees for their incarcerated youth, thanks to Senate Bill 190, which was signed Wednesday by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The bill was introduced by State Sens. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, as part of the #EquityAndJustice package, which included four other Senate bills that reformed the criminal justice system.
Under previous law, juveniles who were detained in state facilities because of crimes were subject to a series of fees that often resulted in a challenging financial burden for their families. The fees affected many Californians, including families at City College.
“All of a sudden they sent me a letter saying I owed $6,000 something,” said Irma Gonzalez, an administration of justice and psychology major. “The interest rate took it up to $8,000. It went all the way up to $9,000.”
Gonzalez, 55, is a mother of six. She raised two sons who both spent time in juvenile hall. The fees started at $3,000, but interest increased the bills over time.
When one of her sons turned 18, she was charged $9,000 in addition to the original charges. She was working at City College when a debt collector started to garnish her wages, taking up to 50 percent.
SB 190 aims to strengthen family and community ties by getting rid of fees that put a strain on families.
Many youth offenders felt guilty for the fees, and often ran away or resorted to crime to help offset the high costs and to support their families. Some families had to file bankruptcy, and collection agencies could withhold tax refunds and garnish wages if fees weren’t paid.
According to an internal review in Contra Costa County, more than 200 cases over four years showed parents of children who were found innocent were also being billed. Research from the Public Policy Institute of California and the Policy Advocate Clinic at U.C. Berkeley School of Law showed that youth of color were more likely to be arrested. Additionally, fees imposed on the families of juvenile youth undermined the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile system.
A press release from Mitchell’s office read, “If one believes that our children will be tomorrow’s leaders, then we must look through a child-development lens and provide the appropriate resources and policies to get them there.”
The crushing fees also caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, but for another reason.
“The Obama administration’s Department of Justice actually released an advisory that they needed to end the fees because of the litigation that it could open up,” said Senate fellow Estevan Ginsburg when talking about the Senate bill.
Yvonne Sandoval, a City College student senator, speculated on how the bill will affect students in particular.
“I think it will help a number of students continue with their education,” she said.
City College administration of justice professor Dr. Georgeann McKee supports the change, preferring a system that works to get offenders back on track.
According to McKee, there should be more focus on rehabilitation, reunification and jobs skills to create a better environment for youth coming back into society, instead of charging families fees they can’t afford.
McKee said money saved by not incarcerating youth opens up more funding for counseling, education, job training and internship programs — which should have been the goal from the start, according to Gonzalez.
“It was bad because it took from us when we were trying to rebuild something. I felt like they wanted to keep us down,” said Gonzalez. “It would have been nice for them to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take some money away, but we’re going to get you some counseling.’”
The four other related Senate bills Gov. Jerry Brown signed today were:
—SB 180 – Drug Sentence Enhancements – Ends wasteful incarceration spending in favor of community reinvestment.
—SB 393 – Sealing of Arrest Records – Seals arrest records and removes barriers to employment for those arrested but not convicted of a crime.
—SB 394 – Juveniles Life Without the Possibility of Parole – This measure would make California compliant with the Montgomery v. Louisiana decision that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole.
For more information, go to Sen. Mitchell’s website sd30.senate.ca.gov.