Low-income families with children in the justice system have been spared significant financial hardship, following local policy changes that ended the longstanding practice of charging parents for juvenile probation and incarceration.
That’s the finding of a study released today by the California Policy Lab, the first study of its kind. University of California experts found that parents in Alameda County, California, were the main beneficiaries of ending the fees for juvenile delinquency, with roughly $1,600 in household income preserved for each family.
“While these administrative fees were levied against youth who were on probation, we know that it was usually the parents and families who were already economically challenged who were bearing the financial burden,” said Wendy Still, the county’s former chief probation officer, in a press release. The Policy Lab pairs academics with local policymakers to research social issues from homelessness to education inequality.
Still added: “It’s gratifying to see that the fee repeal significantly reduced the financial burdens on families and I’m hopeful that jurisdictions in other states will move forward on reforming their systems as well.”
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors halted the collection of fees related to the legal representation, probation supervision and incarceration of youth in 2016. That same year a UC Berkeley School of Law report found that as a result of children’s arrests, local families were forced to choose between affording basic household needs and paying thousands of dollars in debts to the county.
A grandmother who owed detention fees for example, nearly gave up her guardianship of the boy; and a teen who had accrued debts as a result of his probation considered living on the streets to spare his family the financial burden.
In the brief, Policy Lab researchers found that the county’s change of course has resulted in a 70% drop in the overall financial burden faced by families of youth on probation.
Families are still on the hook for some juvenile justice related penalties, such as fines associated with certain offenses, and the cost of restitution. But following the local policy change, they were 22% less likely to face any financial sanctions, the study found.
Study authors compared a cohort of youth who were under probation supervision before the 2016 moratorium with a similar group who entered the juvenile justice system after the change. They found that total sanctions shrank from about $2,200, to roughly $670 after the 2016 repeal of administrative fees.
Researchers also found that families did not face any new monetary sanctions from the county that would replace the cost of the fees, such as an expansion of other fee categories, increased amounts of ongoing fees or more aggressive collection on debts.
Policy Lab researchers suggest the decreased financial sanctions in Alameda County can be attributed to the progressive county’s “overall reform-oriented approach.” Repealing fees in regions “that are more ambivalent about reform” may not be as successful, the study states.
In 2017, California followed Alameda County and became the first state in the nation to ban administrative fees in juvenile delinquency cases. Then last year, the state went beyond the terms set in Senate Bill 190, dismissing $361 million in outstanding juvenile justice debts for unpaid fees for all California residents.
A coalition of youth justice advocacy groups is now campaigning for relief nationwide. The national Debt Free Justice campaign seeks to spare all families the burden of court-ordered fees and improve outcomes for youth on probation.
Julissa Soto of Colorado, whose 14-year-old son was arrested years ago for stealing a tube of toothpaste, spent seven years paying off court and administrative fees, she told The Imprint. She has since become an advocate for parents like her.
“I was in a zombie mode. Working, working, working, paying, paying, paying,”she said earlier this year. Now, Colorado is among a growing number of states reversing such punishing fees.
Policy Lab researcher and study co-author Jaclyn Chambers, a Ph.D. candidate at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, said their findings could guide national efforts.
“Our research quantifies the financial impacts Alameda County’s policy change had for families and should be helpful for policymakers in other jurisdictions who are also working to reform their juvenile justice systems,” she said in a press release statement.