Alameda County suspends juvenile probation, defense fees for families

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In all but a few California counties, the families of youths in the juvenile justice system are charged juvenile probation and public defender fees — for everything from a court-appointed attorney to GPS monitoring. On March 29, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to suspend these fees for county residents.

Research and advocacy conducted by the UC Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic and the East Bay Community Law Center in partnership with other community organizations and county departments found that juvenile probation fees placed a significant burden on low-income families in Alameda County and ultimately undermined the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system.

“The whole purpose of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate kids; it is not supposed to be about punishing them — if anything, it is about allowing kids to enter into society as functioning and contributing adults,” said Stephanie Campos-Bui, clinical teaching fellow at Berkeley Law. “Sticking fees and other kinds of debt onto a lot of these families sets up a lot of these kids to fail.”

Campos-Bui added that this financial burden most often falls on underrepresented minority families.

Fees included $25.29 per day for a stay in a juvenile hall, $15 per day for electronic and GPS monitoring or $300 per case for a court-appointed attorney, among other fees, according to a report from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

Most counties across California charge some sort of fee of this manner, and across the country, at least 40 states engage in the practice, Campos-Bui said.

According to Alameda County District 2 Supervisor Richard Valle, juvenile probation and defender fees were enacted during a recession when the budget was tight. For the 2014-15 fiscal year, the county spent about $250,000 to collect $420,000, amounting to a net profit of $168,892, according to the board’s report.

“(The policy was a) regressive fee that was fiscally prudent at the time but from my perspective was culturally, economically and socially irresponsible,” Valle said, adding that he and others in government were previously unaware of their existence. “It just wasn’t on my radar.”

State policy includes a provision in which families without the means to pay the fees could have them waived, but many of the families in such a situation did not have the time to attend a hearing or were not made aware of such a provision, Valle said. The processes for financial evaluation were often highly discretionary, Campos-Bui added.

Berkeley Law professor Franklin Zimring said the juvenile justice system is charged with serving children and families and should not borrow policies of the criminal justice system.

“Since the early ’90s … there is a real problem in American justice systems, which is when the criminal justice system sneezes, sometimes the juvenile justice system catches cold,” Zimring said.

The board’s moratorium includes preparations for a full repeal of the fees in June 2016. The research and advocacy groups are working with state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, to draft legislation that would remove such fees statewide.

Contact Lucas Lochner-Bravo at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @llochner_dc.