By Sarah Weld
Youth and families in five states will no longer be crushed by debt from the juvenile legal system, thanks to the expertise and initiative of Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic (PAC).
Since staff and students at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) first raised the issue with PAC in 2012, the clinic has helped drive the surging movement to abolish fees charged to children and their parents for a wide range of administrative costs, from public defenders to electronic monitoring devices.
PAC students led the policy charge to abolish juvenile fees in California in 2017 — the first state to do so — in partnership with EBCLC, the Youth Justice Coalition, the Western Center on Law & Poverty, and others. Next came Nevada, where two clinic students initiated a successful drive on behalf of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance to eliminate fees in 2019.
This year, clinic staff and students supported successful abolition campaigns in five more states — Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Texas — that will no longer charge fees to youth in the juvenile system or their families. The clinic has been directly involved in seven of the 10 states that have reduced or eliminated juvenile fees since 2017.
“Working with local partners across the country, including in the Deep South, we have shown that it is possible to completely end this regressive tax on low-income Black and Brown families,” says clinic Deputy Director Stephanie Campos-Bui ’14.
Although the fees vary by state and even county, juvenile courts often charge youth and families thousands of dollars for detention, supervision, electronic monitoring, drug testing, and “free” public defenders.
According to a 2017 clinic report, Orange County billed Maria Rivera $23.90 per day for her son’s time in juvenile hall and $2,200 for her court-appointed lawyer, totaling $16,372.
“Ms. Rivera, an unemployed single mother, sold her home to pay the county more than $9,500,” Campos-Bui says “When the county pursued the remainder of the debt, she filed for bankruptcy. Even after bankruptcy, Orange County continued to harass Ms. Rivera until a federal court ordered it to stop.”
PAC’s extensive research shows that juvenile fees disproportionately harm low-income families and families of color. The clinic has also found that local governments often spend more money chasing families to pay than they collect in fees. Santa Clara County spent $450,000 to collect $400,000 before ending the practice in 2018. The fees put families into debt and push youth deeper into the juvenile system, increasing recidivism and undermining families and community well-being.
“The more we’ve studied this issue, the more it’s become clear that juvenile fees are a modern-day form of racialized wealth extraction with origins in the Black Codes and convict leasing,” says clinic Director Jeff Selbin. “We think of those historical laws and practices as abhorrent, yet we continue to impose similar harm on some of our most vulnerable kids and families.”
The clinic’s winning playbook for eliminating fees focuses on partnering with local youth justice organizations; researching and analyzing state laws, practices, and impacts; consulting with system actors such as probation officers, public defenders, and judges; and testifying before state legislatures.
“The tenacity and expertise of the students and teaching fellows were critical to the New Mexico campaign’s success,” says Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national advocacy organization that regularly partners with PAC — including on the triumphant push to abolish fees in New Mexico. “It is fantastic to see the clinic continuing to grow. PAC is building momentum to end the counterproductive practice of wealth extraction from low-income youth and their families nationwide, and contributing to the body of knowledge critical to eliminating adult criminal legal fees as well.”
Every semester, clinic faculty supervise dozens of students from Berkeley Law and UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy who fan out across the country, carefully laying the groundwork to get rid of the fees. While sometimes their work takes years to produce results, clinic Deputy Director Devan Shea M.P.P. ’19 says the current momentum is encouraging.
Shea, who oversees the clinic’s work in the Southwest, says: “This spate of historic reforms over just the last few months brings us a big step closer to the tipping point after which states that still authorize these harmful practices will be the exception and not the norm.”
Going forward, PAC is poised to exert even more influence. Major gifts from key institutional and individual donors supported the hiring of four new teaching fellows in 2020 and three more this summer, bringing the total number of clinic faculty to 10.
In addition to working on implementation in the states that just passed bills, students will support fee repeal initiatives in 15 states this fall as PAC prepares to launch a national Campaign for Debt Free Justice with Juvenile Law Center and the National Center for Youth Law.
Beyond its state-level work, the clinic recently co-authored a letter signed by more than 180 organizations nationwide that urges the U.S. Department of Justice to reissue and update its January 2017 advisory, rescinded by the Trump Administration, recommending that states abolish fees and fines for youth in the justice system. PAC is also providing technical support on several federal bills that will incentivize state repeal of juvenile fees and fines.
A broader problem
Burdensome fees are not limited to youth. Courts charge adults a huge array of fees, which also disproportionately harm poor families and families of color.
Last year, PAC represented Debt Free Justice California, a coalition of dozens of racial, economic, and criminal justice groups, which successfully advocated for the passage of a bill repealing 23 fees in the adult criminal system and ending the collection of a staggering $15.9 billion in outstanding fees — the first bill of its kind nationwide. This year, the clinic is supporting the coalition’s work on another state bill that would eliminate the remaining 63 fees for adults and discharge billions more.
“To make this kind of progress on such a deeply rooted problem has been tremendously gratifying, especially during these challenging times,” says Campos-Bui, who has led PAC’s California work since joining the clinic six years ago. “It wouldn’t have happened without a broad-based coalition driven by impacted youth and families.”
The clinic’s voice has entered the courts on this issue as well. In June, the Idaho Supreme Court issued an opinion with national implications, holding that it is unconstitutional to issue arrest warrants for unpaid fines and fees without determining whether defendants can afford to pay.
The clinic became aware of the case through its work on juvenile fees in Idaho and organized an amicus brief with groups across the country and political spectrum, including the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Cato Institute, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The case and the clinic’s related work is also featured in a new law review article about juvenile fee abolition.
Selbin reflects on how far things have come in just a few years: “We’re blessed with a wonderfully talented staff, smart and committed students, and incredibly generous funders. With local and national partners, it’s been a privilege to contribute to the larger movement to dismantle systems of racial and economic oppression while making a tangible difference in the lives of so many youth and families.”