CLINIC STUDENTS POWER MOVEMENT TO ELIMINATE REGRESSIVE JUVENILE JUSTICE FEES NATIONWIDE
Berkeley Law students are at the forefront of a national effort to help families overwhelmed by draconian juvenile justice fees. Students and lawyers at the East Bay Community Law Center first identified the problem among their clients. Then research by the Policy Advocacy Clinic (PAC) revealed that such fees are often charged illegally, devastate families, and provide California counties little or no financial gain.
The fees fall hardest on low-income families of color, whose children are disproportionately punished in the juvenile system, resulting in large bills they cannot pay. Studies show that juvenile debt also correlates with higher recidivism.
“The system isn’t designed to punish kids, it’s meant to rehabilitate them and help them get their lives together,” says recent PAC student Tim Kline ’17. “Charging these fees is anathema to that purpose.”
The clinic’s findings spurred Alameda County to become the first in the nation to ban such fees. Four other state counties followed suit, and The New York Times and U.S. Department of Justice cited PAC’s work in recommending reform.
With momentum for new legislation, clinic students drafted Senate Bill 190 to repeal juvenile fees throughout California. The bill cleared its first hurdles at two spring hearings and may reach the governor’s desk this summer. PAC students wrote supporting documents, provided research and technical support, organized advocacy groups, handled public and media outreach, and will testify at State Senate and Assembly committee hearings.
“State law says these fees are supposed to help counties recoup costs,” notes PAC Director and Clinical Professor of Law Jeff Selbin. “They’re not supposed to hurt vulnerable families.”
Now—thanks to a major, multiyear grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation—the clinic will lead a national endeavor to eliminate such fees.
“This includes analyzing other states’ systems … speaking with key stakeholders on the ground, and gauging interest among potential partner organizations in those states,” says Katherine Buckley ’17. The clinic will also co-develop a web-based policy hub with the Juvenile Law Center for advocates and policymakers.
A new PAC report shows that some counties charge fees not authorized by state law, authorized only in the adult setting, and to youth found not guilty. Many counties violate federal law by charging to feed their children in detention while also seeking reimbursement from national programs.
As Transcript went to press, 53 of California’s 58 counties charged families at least one of the administrative fees, including for detention, legal counsel, electronic monitoring, probation supervision, drug testing, and investigation reports.
A telling example: Orange County billed Maria Rivera $16,372 for her son’s detention and lawyer. She sold her home to pay more than $9,500 and filed for bankruptcy when the county continued to pursue the debt’s balance. The county relented only after a federal appeals court declared the debt dischargeable in bankruptcy.
“We have yet to find a fee regime in California that is both fair and cost effective,” says PAC teaching fellow Stephanie Campos-Bui ’14.