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Guest Blog: Fines and Fees for Court-Involved Youth

by Stephanie Campos-Bui, Policy Advocacy Clinic, U.C. Berkeley Law, and Kate Weisburd, East Bay Community Law Center. U.C. Berkeley Law

Note: The authors will be our guests for a conference call on March 2nd. Click here to learn more and to RSVP.

The End of Juvenile Fees in Alameda County, California:
Pairing Practice and Policy to Make Change

When the juvenile court judge ordered Omar detained in a group home far from his family in Oakland, both Omar and his grandmother blinked back tears.  Visits would be impossible and Omar was unlikely to return home for many months.  At the same hearing, the judge ordered Omar’s grandmother to meet with a Financial Hearing Officer.

Omar was one of the first clients that East Bay Community Law Center’s (“EBCLC”) newly formed Youth Defender Clinic represented in juvenile court in Alameda County.  Omar’s EBCLC attorney accompanied his grandmother, who had limited income and was receiving public benefits, to speak with the Financial Hearing Officer, the county official tasked with assessing court-related fees.  The officer asked no questions and shared minimal information before handing Omar’s grandmother a bill for over $4,000 in fees—$250 for a probation investigation fee, $25.29 for each of the thirty nights that Omar had been detained in juvenile hall, $90 a month for the months he had been probation, and more. This was in addition to the $2,000 in victim restitution that Omar already owed.

Omar’s story was not unique.  Over and over, EBCLC, along with the local public defenders, saw poor families, almost exclusively Black and Latino, forced to the breaking point as they attempted to pay off fees, fines and restitution.  Where the money went, what the fees covered, the legal basis to impose the fees and the opportunities for families to contest their bills was a mystery.

Although EBCLC tried to help families like Omar’s, the problem was widespread.  EBCLC, along with community partners, wanted to end the assessment and collection of all of these juvenile court fees.  Armed with the experiences of young clients and a keen understanding of juvenile court practices, EBCLC teamed up with the Policy Advocacy Clinic at U.C. Berkeley School of Law to investigate juvenile administrative fees in Alameda County.

Over the next two years, PAC submitted public record act requests about the types of fees assessed and collected annually as well as guidelines for determining a family’s ability to pay such fees.  The Clinic analyzed hundreds of pages of records and interviewed probation officers and collections staff charged with billing fees to parents and guardians.  When asked about how ability to pay was determined, one collections officer said that it came down to instinct.  She could tell whether a family was lying about their income based on the mother’s purse.

The findings were clear: juvenile fees were harmful and costly.  The county charged fees to families already struggling to maintain economic stability.  The debt became a civil judgment upon assessment, and if families did not pay the fees, the debt was referred to the Franchise Tax Board for wage garnishment or tax intercept.  Under state law, these fees are supposed to help counties recoup costs. But Alameda County, like most counties, generated little net revenue from the fees, often spending as much trying to collect fees as they collected back each year.

Armed with this new information, EBCLC, PAC, and other community partners lobbied the County Board of Supervisors to end juvenile fees.  Their hard work paid off and the Board was persuaded. In the summer of 2016, Alameda County became the first in the state to end the assessment of these fees and to forgive the debt of almost 3,000 families in the county with outstanding bills.  EBCLC and community partners quickly worked to figure out implementation, while PAC set about to help other counties in California follow suit and with EBCLC as a co-sponsor, drafted statewide legislation to end fees.

The success in Alameda County was the direct result of pairing policy change with on-the-ground practice to bring about systemic reform.  It was Omar, and youth like him, that inspired the change, EBCLC’s expertise in juvenile court that defined the issue and informed the approach, and the Policy Clinic’s research and strategic advocacy that documented the problems.  This approach, and the result, garnered national attention, including an acknowledgment by the Editorial Board of the New York Times and a citation by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a bankruptcy case concerning a mother’s juvenile fee debt. Most recently, the Department of Justice issued an advisory cautioning local jurisdictions about unlawful juvenile fee practices and the burdens they impose on vulnerable families.

PAC continues to work toward ending the fees statewide in California. Over the next couple of years, PAC will scale its work nationally by supporting advocates in their efforts to persuade policymakers to end juvenile fee practices in their jurisdictions.

EBCLC’s efforts to end juvenile fees is part of its broader effort to shine light on juvenile justice practices that operate in the shadows and often result in increased hyper-criminalization of youth of color.  For example, EBCLC is working to reveal – and reform – unnecessarily onerous probation conditions, as well as the over-reliance on electronic monitoring, that often leads to incarceration, and youth remaining system-involved for longer.