Some Counties Illegally Levy Juvenile Legal Fees—Low-Income Families of Color Are Hit Hardest

SB 190 co-authors Sen. Holly Mitchell and then Sen. Ricardo Lara campaigned for the bill in 2017.

Anthony Robles, 26, of Los Angeles grew up with the weight of debt hanging over his family.

Not from credit cards, housing costs or car loans—the debt was from court and probation fees he and his older brother racked up from run-ins with the juvenile justice system during their troubled childhood.

The responsibility for those fees, which amounted to thousands of dollars, fell on his struggling single mother. Robles’ dad was deported to Mexico when Robles was in first grade, leaving his mom on her own with three children. She tried her best to pay the fees, Robles said, but couldn’t manage it, pushing the family into an endless cycle of financial and emotional despair.

“It was money that we didn’t even have,” Robles said. “I have the type of mom who would do anything for her kids and try to find a way, but we just didn’t have the money. My mom was always distraught.”

Under a state law that took effect in January 2018, counties are no longer supposed to charge fees to youth involved in the juvenile legal system, or their families. Collection of certain fees for 18 to 21 year olds in the adult criminal system is also banned.

The law, originally titled Senate Bill 190, has meant families like Robles’ have been collectively relieved of hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. However, a recent study found that some counties continue to illegally collect some prohibited fees. Others are chasing young people and their families for debts they incurred before the law took effect, which is legal, but undermines the law’s purpose of alleviating strain on poor families, experts argue.

Research shows criminal and juvenile legal fees disproportionately burden low-income people of color, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. The fees have been shown to exacerbate poverty, create conflict within already stressed families, and increase the likelihood that youth will reoffend.

“Even with all this evidence that fees are recidivistic and fees are bad for children and bad for communities of color … we still end up with counties choosing to continue to collect them, and that’s really disappointing,” said Jess Bartholow, legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, which sponsored the original legislation. “Why would we allow these fees to continue to be out there and create harm?”

Overall, counties have stopped collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in juvenile fees as a result of SB 190, and that’s a huge success, said Jeffrey Selbin, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law and co-author of the new study on the outcome of the bill. In addition to stopping fees covered by the law, 36 counties have voluntarily discharged more than $237 million in outstanding fees that accrued before the bill took effect, the study found.

However, some counties continue to collect and charge prohibited fees through child support orders, and to young people in the adult system, the study found. And 22 counties, led by San Diego, Orange, Riverside, Tulare and Stanislaus counties, are still pursuing over $136 million in previously assessed juvenile fees.

There’s little evidence that counties benefit financially from the fees. UC Berkeley researchers found that, prior to SB 190 taking effect, some counties were spending almost as much trying to collect fees as they were actually bringing in, most likely because many of the people being charged couldn’t afford to pay. Many couldn’t even say how much they collected in fees.

Selbin said he thinks counties may still be collecting the prohibited fees because they’re unclear about the law. And since there is no state entity to oversee enforcement, ensuring all counties follow the same rules is a challenge, he said.

Whatever the reason, Bartholow said the Western Center on Law & Poverty and other justice reform advocates are prepared to take legal action against counties that don’t fully comply with the law. They also want the state to step in and stop the illegal fee collection.

“We don’t want to be out there for years in litigation,” she said. “We hope people see this and understand we’re not going away until the fees are gone.”

Meanwhile, the UC Berkeley study, which has been sent out to counties, encourages those that haven’t done so yet to end collection of previously assessed fees. It also recommends the state legislature and governor pass a law that makes it mandatory for counties to do this. Bartholow said her organization and others are currently working on getting such a bill introduced this year.

“There are still people who are being chased, harassed, harmed every day, and they’re some of the most vulnerable families in the state,” Selbin said. “It would be really good to give these families a break.”

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