New Bill Aims to Stop Charging Parents of Incarcerated Kids

Contra Costa County has unlawfully charged more than 500 parents for the cost of holding their kids in juvenile hall. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

In most California counties, if a kid gets arrested and locked up, his or her parents often get charged for some of the costs of incarceration. These fees can run up to $30 a day for juvenile hall and $17 a day for ankle-monitoring.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) has introduced SB 190, a bill that aims to end these juvenile fees statewide. Research shows that poor kids and kids of color are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, so Mitchell says these fees are often charged to families who can least afford them.

"What we walked away with was that it was more onerous and more difficult on the families being subjected to the fees, versus beneficial really in any meaningful way to the counties or the probation departments," Mitchell says.

In addition, Mitchell points out that the way the fees are collected is also unfair and sometimes unlawful.

For example, in Contra Costa County an internal review going back four years found more than 200 cases where it improperly charged families. Parents ended up being billed even when there had been no sustained petition in their kids' cases. That means basically the children had been found innocent, but the families still got charged.

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Now the county's probation department is working to locate and refund money to these people. Improper fines come to about $58,000 for the period of internal review. Probation Chief Todd Billeci says he doesn’t know how much the outreach effort to refund that money will ultimately cost Contra Costa County.

Rebecca Brown, a criminal justice reform advocate and director of the Reentry Solutions Group, told county supervisors that refunding those parents isn’t enough. Brown described what one woman recently told her on the phone.

"'I work for a homeless shelter. I'm raising my grandchildren. My son was incarcerated for a year. I'm trying to pay that bill," Brown recounted. "I asked her: How much was that bill? She said, '$13,000.' "

This woman's story illustrates another big problem with juvenile fines and fees: Counties don't properly assess parents "ability to pay," according to Brown, which they are legally required to do. So, the cases where parents were unlawfully charged these fees may actually number many more than what Contra Costa's internal probe uncovered.

Meanwhile, the movement to stop charging parents juvenile fees altogether is gaining traction across the state.

In the past year, Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara counties all stopped collecting juvenile fines. This week Butte County joined them. There will be a hearing on SB 190 later this month.