By Andrew Cohen
A determined two-year effort by Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic (PAC) produced a gratifying victory last week. In a unanimous vote, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors imposed a moratorium on assessing and collecting administrative fees against families with children in the county’s juvenile justice system.
The next day, PAC released a detailed report describing the ways in which these fees disrupt family stability with little or no financial gain to the county. The report reveals how inadequate governmental oversight has led to these statewide practices—and how they damage families who are disproportionately poor and of color.
“Thanks to our students’ incredible research and advocacy, 2,900 families struggling with children in the juvenile system will get immediate financial relief and many hundreds more won’t face these regressive and harmful fees each year,” said Jeffrey Selbin, the clinic’s director.
Because African-American youth are sentenced more often to probation than white youth, and serve longer probation periods, their families are hit particularly hard. The report notes that families with an African-American youth serving average probation conditions in Alameda County are liable for $3,438 in fees—more than twice that of white families ($1,637).
“Sadly, bias is endemic in U.S. criminal and juvenile justice systems,” said Ahmed Lavalais ’17, one of the students who worked on the report under the supervision of Selbin and PAC teaching fellow Stephanie Campos-Bui ’14. “Because these fees are directly linked to the severity of punishment, they impact most heavily groups that are already the most discriminated against.”
Many families can’t afford to pay the fees, resulting in debt that becomes a permanent legal judgment—leading to wage garnishment, bank account levies and tax receipt intercepts. PAC surveyed all 58 chief probation officers in California and found that 48 of the state’s 52 responding counties charge families for detaining their children in juvenile hall, 37 for providing a public defender, and 28 for electronic ankle monitoring. Some counties also charge families for probation supervision, drug testing, and investigation fees.
A concerted group effort
In preparing the report, several Berkeley Law students and one Goldman School of Public Policy student analyzed state statutes, submitted Public Records Act requests, and interviewed key stakeholders, including affected families. Five Goldman students also conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the fees.
Alameda County’s fees for an average youth in the juvenile system jumped more than 10-fold since 2009. Due to collection-related costs, however, the county saw no meaningful budget gain from this increase. Poring through records from the Board of Supervisors, Probation Department, and Central Collections Agency, students found that the county returned at most a modest net gain of about $168,000 last fiscal year.
“It’s troubling to realize how long it took to uncover that this system—clearly so harmful to families—is also fiscally untenable for counties,” said clinic student Alex Kaplan ’16. “Should any county be spending nearly as much money trying to collect this type of toxic debt as it’s able to actually collect? Absolutely not.”
Kate Weisburd, who has confronted the impact of juvenile system fees as director of the East Bay Community Law Center’s Youth Defender Clinic, helped put the issue on PAC’s radar. “We saw firsthand how juvenile court debt runs directly counter to the juvenile court system’s rehabilitative goals,” she said. “It undermines family stability when it’s needed most.”
Weisburd credits PAC for “taking the injustice that we saw on the front lines in court and translating it into broad systemic policy reform.” She said Alameda County’s moratorium signals a shift away from defendant-funded justice systems and that “legislation eliminating these fees can’t come soon enough.”
Sparking a broader movement
In October 2015, Kaplan and Campos-Bui presented PAC’s initial findings to the county Board of Supervisors’ Public Protection Committee and asked that a fees moratorium be submitted to the full Board for a vote. Three months later, Lavalais and Rachel Draznin-Nagy ’16 spoke to other county officials about how these fees jeopardize family structures.
“When we started this project two years ago, there was almost no research on this practice even though it takes place in roughly 40 states,” Kaplan said. “It was an incredible experience to be part of a tireless team of students, attorneys, advocates, and faculty working collaboratively to bring about a change that will relieve so many families of unnecessary administrative debt.”
After the moratorium passed, the clinic “received emails from our direct services partners telling us how much this development will positively impact their clients,” Lavalais said. “That was enormously gratifying.”
Clinic members hope their success fuels similar research and advocacy across the country. They are currently working with California State Senator Holly Mitchell to pass SB 941, which would repeal county authority to assess and collect juvenile system fees statewide. The bill will be heard by the Senate Public Safety Committee later this month.
According to Campos-Bui, “A county-by-county approach is not the answer. Families with kids in the juvenile system should not be charged more or less based on where they live. A statewide solution—a full repeal, not just a fix—is needed.”