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Jail fees pile up for Sonoma County juvenile offenders


The phone rings. Your teenage son has run away and gotten into a fight. Again.

He’s back at Sonoma County’s juvenile hall off Highway 12 in rural east Santa Rosa.

For the next several months, you attend meetings with his public defender, make his court appointments and visit him twice a week while working full time and shuttling your other children between school and sports.

Then you get the bill.

There’s no daily charge for adults booked into Sonoma County Jail, but that’s not the case for kids consigned to juvenile hall.

Parents of incarcerated Sonoma County children are billed a daily base fee of $32, among the most expensive in the state. The daily charge is in addition to restitution and a list of other fees levied by the criminal justice system, from drug testing to the staff time it takes to collect the bill.

And many parents can’t afford it.

More than $4 million in outstanding bills is hanging over the heads of the parents and guardians of children arrested in Sonoma County, according to numbers provided by the probation department. About $1 million was billed within the past three years. The debt can result in garnished wages, deductions from state tax refunds and calls from collection agencies.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Sonoma County Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi, adding that a child’s arrest is traumatic for families, and the hefty bills that follow further strain parents’ and guardians’ efforts to maintain stability.

“Parents are responsible for their children, but should they be held responsible, financially, when they have no choice, when their children are being housed in a facility?”

Some counties suspend fees

In California, most counties charge daily fees to parents of juvenile offenders, with rates ranging from $3.18 in Lake County to $40 in San Luis Obispo County, according to researchers with UC Berkeley’s School of Law, who in March published a report on juvenile detention fees.

The fees, on the books in California since 1961, have come under fire recently by advocates arguing they add another burden on vulnerable families and provide little benefit to counties. The fees are not designed as a form of punishment — unlike restitution payments to compensate victims — but were written into law to help counties cover costs.

But the amount parents pay doesn’t come close to covering costs.

Some counties, such as Santa Clara, found they were spending more money trying to collect the fees than the amount of revenue brought in. Santa Clara County spent $450,000 to collect about $400,000 in the fiscal year ending in June 2015, according to the report.

Over the past year, Alameda, Santa Clara and Contra Costa county officials repealed or suspended these fees, citing the financial hardship for families and the lack of benefit to counties. Butte County supervisors this week will decide whether to stop charging fees.

The fees have not been up for discussion in Sonoma County. Several Sonoma County officials said they hadn’t considered the issue.

When asked, Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said she was aware of the fees, which are approved by the board every three years, but had not considered whether they brought in enough to outweigh the burden placed on families. She said questions from a reporter led her to ask the probation department for more information.

“It’s going to be a lot more costly to us if that kid doesn’t get on the right path,” Zane said. “We want to support stabilizing those youth-parent relationships, and that’s not (by) handing their parents a whopping bill.”

Probation department chief David Koch said he doesn’t know precisely how much it costs the county to manage fee collection each year, but estimated it was about $100,000. Parents will have paid about $317,000 over the 12-month period ending July 1 in daily fees.

“I know that counties, on a case-by-case basis, are considering this,” Koch said. “It’s on our radar screen, but we haven’t had any substantive discussions about whether to recommend making any changes.”

Cost of incarceration

Low-income and minority youth are over-represented in the jails. Statewide, Latino youth are nearly twice as likely as white juveniles to be arrested and put on probation, and they are almost three times as likely to be incarcerated, according to the UC Berkeley researchers.

In Sonoma County, about 67 percent of young people housed by the county’s juvenile justice system are minorities, mostly Latino, according to the probation department. To compare, Latino children represent about 44 percent of students in grades 7-12 in the county.

Incarcerated children in Sonoma County are either held at the 140-bed Los Guilicos juvenile detention center or sent to the probation camp, a 24-bed camp in the countryside north of Forestville with vocational training.

The annual budget of Sonoma County’s juvenile hall is about $14 million, division director Marty Mitchell said. It costs the county $292.77 per day to house a child. The average daily population was between 55 and 60 youth over the past 18 months.

Most children get out quickly after an arrest. For children ordered by a judge to serve time in the hall, the average stay is 107 days, costing parents a minimum of $3,424, according to the probation department numbers.

Children stay longer at the probation camp, with an average stay of 190 days, costing parents $6,080 at the daily rate of $32. The probation camp houses boys between 16 and 18 years old, and they attend school and learn skills like cooking and fabricating. The boys make picnic tables, benches and barbecue stoves.

The monthly cost for just the daily fee — about $960 — is about 38 percent of the monthly median income in Sonoma County, according to the 2014 Portrait of Sonoma County.

Nearly 70 percent of families made no payments on bills from the Sonoma County probation department for a child’s incarceration and supervision during the fiscal year ending in June 2016, according to county figures.

“Families aren’t paying on this debt because they can’t afford to,” Stephanie Campos-Bui, one of the UC Berkeley report’s authors, said in an interview. “There’s very low gain to the county, and when you compare that to the impact on families, it’s a bad calculus.”

State law requires counties have financial evaluation officers to determine whether families can pay, but the statute doesn’t outline what standards to use. The UC Berkeley researchers said they found problems with how counties were making these judgments. Campos-Bui said, in one case, a financial evaluation officer in Alameda County said she looked at the quality of the mother’s handbag to determine whether she was being honest about her income.

Koch said they use a combination of the child support services guidelines and tax returns to determine a parent’s ability to pay. Parents must pay at minimum $50 per month toward the total bill.

Toni Abraham, who works with incarcerated youth for Santa Rosa nonprofit Social Advocates for Youth, said parents have come to her in tears over these bills, but there’s nothing Abraham can do other than suggest calling a legal aid services program.

“That’s the last thing they can do, more than likely, afford a bill,” Abraham said. “They have a whole household to support at home, often with only one working parent. It’s a struggle, and it is real.”

Inside juvenile hall

Inside the maximum security unit at Sonoma County’s juvenile hall, groups of boys sat around tables on a recent morning eating apples, oranges and graham crackers. Many were focused, heads down, in a game called Dice 10000.

Asked about the fees, a table of boys between the ages of 15 and 18 nodded their heads in immediate recognition.

“My dad sends in the $50 each month,” according to one 15-year-old boy, who said his mother is homeless. He was homeless, too, until his arrest. His father works in construction out of the area and lives in motels.

“We do get three meals a day, but we have to stay away from our families,” said another teen, age 18. He has been incarcerated about 15 months and said his mother works at a hair salon.

At another table, one boy said his family applied for a reduced fee and it was granted. Another boy said he hasn’t seen his parents in years and doesn’t know if they are being billed.

Mitchell, who runs juvenile hall, said the steep costs of running juvenile detention services are in part the result of the high staff ratio requirements — they had 56 full-time employees and 53 inmates on a recent day — and the heavy focus on rehabilitation, which involves school and other enrichment programs.

“Historically, (the parent fees) supplement the budget but it’s a fraction of the cost,” Mitchell said. “If it went away, we’d be fine. We have low-income families already having trouble making ends meet.”

Outside the locked doors of juvenile hall, parents waited on benches in the facility’s main lobby for court appearances before the juvenile judge.

One mother, a 57-year-old Santa Rosa hairstylist, said her outstanding balance for her son’s incarceration is about $14,000. She has been paying about $100 each month toward the debt, but still received a letter from the probation department claiming she was delinquent and threatening to put liens on her property. It took four phone calls before the financial officer assured her the payments were received and her account was in good standing.

“It was torture,” said the woman, who only gave her first name, Sandra. “You’re already going through such horrific things.”

She asked her full name not be used because she is afraid her opinion about the fees might adversely impact her son’s case. Another mother, a 44-year-old Santa Rosa health care worker, said she called police to help with her 15-year-old son, who had been using drugs and alcohol and stealing from the family. She has two other children and felt she had to get police involved, even though she knew it would come at a cost.

“We didn’t have a choice; there was no other option,” said the woman, whose first name is Jennifer. “You don’t think about the bill. He needs to be away from his friends.”

Proposed legislation

A group of California lawmakers introduced a bill earlier this year that would get rid of juvenile detention fees statewide. The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 190, stalled in committee in April and its fate is unclear. A similar bill introduced last year failed to gain momentum and died.

Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said he believes the bill will regain momentum, noting the U.S. Department of Justice in January issued a memo outlining how detention fees levied on juveniles may be discriminatory and unlawful.

McGuire said charging detention fees to the families of incarcerated youth is also impractical because “counties struggle to collect pennies on the dollar.”

“It saddles some of California’s most vulnerable families with debt,” he said. “There is a reason why counties can’t collect: because parents are choosing to put food on the table instead of paying these bills.”

Parents can request fee waivers if they can demonstrate financial hardship, but it’s rarely successful. Of 23 applications for fee waivers, none was granted during the fiscal year ending in June 2016. The county granted fee reductions to about 40 percent of requests for partial relief during that time period.

Over the past 16 months, Sonoma County’s juvenile court has just once held a hearing to evaluate a parent’s ability to pay the fees, according to José Guillén, Sonoma County Superior Court’s executive officer.

Guillén said he felt an analysis of whether the fees are appropriate is “long overdue.”

“The Legislature has created this morass of user fees to fund various court services or other county services,” Guillén said. “The fees have gotten out of reach for individuals and the Legislature needs to fix it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.