California Takes Another Step Toward Relieving Family Debt

San Diego County Eliminates Over $40 Million of Old Juvenile Fees

By Shellsea Lomeli

SAN DIEGO, CA – San Diego County recently joined the majority of counties in California that have discharged old juvenile fees in order to relieve struggling families of financial strain. In response, advocates for criminal justice reform are hoping for more counties in the state to do the same.

In January of 2018, Senate Bill 190 went into effect, preventing counties in California from imposing families with new juvenile fees. Prior to the passing of this bill, the board of supervisors of any county was able to authorize a program administrative fee and an application fee for individuals sentenced to a home detention program. Now, only adults who are over the age of 21 are required to pay these fees. However, the bill did not require the collection of previously assessed fees to halt. Earlier this month, in line with the intention of SB 190 to “provide relief for vulnerable families and communities, the Board of Supervisors in Riverside County and Stanislaus County both made the decision to discharge a combined total of 10 million juvenile fee debts.

On May 19, Western Center on Law & Poverty released a statement in collaboration with Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic in response to San Diego County eliminating old juvenile fees.

Western Center on Law & Poverty is a non-profit law firm that works “through the lens of economic and racial justice and advocates “on behalf of Californians experiencing poverty in every branch of government.

“The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to discharge more than $40 million old juvenile fees for roughly 9,100 families,” stated the release. Many of these families “live at or below the poverty line.”

Fines and Fees Justice Center, an organization that works to eliminate fees in the justice system, called this action from the Board of Supervisors “a huge win for #debtfreejustice.” Debt-free Justice California is an initiative that works toward ending unfair ways the criminal legal system drains wealth from vulnerable communities.

According to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors’ meeting agenda, these juvenile fees were described as “debts for costs such as days in custody, legal assistance, and community supervision, among others.”

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher called this action “a long-overdue step to alleviate an unjust burden on youth and families by (eliminating) the outdated practice of collecting overdue juvenile fees.”

Including San Diego, 40 California counties have stopped collecting past fees, much of which were charges that were decades old. The release from Western Center on Law & Poverty stated that these fees amounted to over $300 million.

“They’ve [the counties] have learned from research that these fees are a regressive and racially discriminatory tax on vulnerable families that undermine key goals of the justice system,” stated Jeffery Selbin, Clinical Professor of Law at UC Berkeley Law School.

The research Selbin was referring to was conducted by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at Berkeley Law in 2017. It exposed “the harmful, unlawful, and costly practice of charging juvenile administrative fees in California.”

“Counties should reimburse families for improperly charged fees,” the researchers suggested in addition to ending the collection of juvenile administrative fees. Berkeley Law also recommended that “the state and counties should collect and maintain better data in the juvenile system” in order to properly “understand the consequences of costly practices like juvenile administrative fees.

“Families barely making ends meet even before the current economic crisis suffer the most from these fees, which do nothing to help their kids,” Selbin added.

In the resolution that ended juvenile fees, San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors indicated that “the debt follows families well after the child’s offense and term of probation is completed, affecting their ability to invest in basic needs such as education and healthcare, or financially preparing their child for life as an adult.

“The long-term consequences of these outstanding debts further exacerbate conditions of poverty for not only the affected families but for their surrounding community and can lead to further unintended costs of society,” the resolution stated.

This action to eliminate all juvenile fee debts in San Diego County becomes official on June 2, 2020. However, according to the Western Center on Law & Poverty, the action “is retroactive to February 14, 2020 – the date the County declared a COVID-19 State of Emergency ‘to provide urgent and direct financial relief to these families.’” The COVID-19 global pandemic has already facilitated extraordinary financial hardships.

Even in the light of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, the Western Center on Law & Poverty indicated that “18 counties have not discharged old fees.

“Orange County is still collecting $38 million and Tulare is collecting $11 million,” stated the release.

Other counties in California that are still collecting old fees include Lassen County, Mendocino County, and San Luis Obispo County. In a combination of the 18 counties that have not stopped collecting, Berkeley Law estimates that $114,756,220 of old juvenile fees are still being collected.

Currently, legislators are trying to pass California Senate Bill 1290 which “seeks to eliminate juvenile fee debt altogether.

“If passed, SB 1290 will provide substantial relief for families living in counties that have not followed the majority of counties in the state in acknowledging that these fees are bad policy with little fiscal benefit,” stated Rebecca Miller, senior litigator at Western Center on Law & Poverty. She is also a co-sponsor of SB 190 and SB 1290.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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