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California Parents and Guardians Assessed Fees to Offset Juvenile Detention Costs

On February 13, 2009, following an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, the L.A. County Probation Department suspended its practice of billing parents and legal guardians for each day their children spent in juvenile detention.

The practice was generally legal under a 20-year-old California law intended to prevent families from using the juvenile justice system as a baby-sitting service (Cal. Welfare and Institutions Code, Section 903). However, critics complained it was being administered in a manner contrary to state law – that is, without consideration of whether or not a family could actually afford to pay the detention fees.

With 19 probation camps and three juvenile halls, which are presently under federal monitoring due to problems re-lated to safety, staff training and medical care, Los Angeles County has one of the largest juvenile justice populations in the U.S. In 2008, approximately 20,000 youths were processed through the county’s juvenile system at a cost of $100 to $200 per day of detention.

To partially offset those costs, county officials billed parents and legal guardians for the misbehavior of their children, assessing fees of $11.94 for each day of detention at a probation camp and $23.63 for each day at a juvenile hall.

Although Probation Department Chief Robert Taylor defended the practice, he agreed to temporarily suspend the fees pending a review to determine whether they were consistent with the law. “We’re not going to collect any money or send out any letters until we have a chance to examine how we do this,” he said.

Critics noted that state law allows counties to charge only those who can afford to pay, yet the Probation Department’s aggressive billing and collection practices had forced some families to go into debt while others had liens placed against their homes. The county was apparently using a 2003-2004 income scale to determine ability to pay and did not consider living expenses.

In one case, a special education teacher who volunteered to take in two 16-year-olds received a bill in October 2008 for almost $10,000, even though one of the teens had been held in detention before coming to live with him.

Only $2.6 million of the $23.6 million billed by the Probation Department in fiscal year 2008 was collected – and to re-cover that amount the county had to spend $812,000 for a fee collections office and $56,000 to hire a collections agency. Of the 8,100 people who were billed that year but did not pay, only 198 had the fees waived. Fifty-seven of those were receiving public assistance.

According to the Times, county officials improperly sought to recover costs from extended family members, grandparents and foster parents. The people who received questionable bills included a homeless mother in a Los Angeles shelter and a disabled postal worker who had adopted his 17-year-old nephew. The Probation Department spent $12,800 on private attorneys to recover $1,004 from a disabled grandmother, though that bill was later dismissed.

“The county does not appear to have made the effort to discern who can afford to pay and who cannot,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a Los Angeles County Supervisor. “There ought to be a high level of concern about what we’re doing.”

The Youth Justice Coalition in Inglewood, California found that over 95 percent of families with children involved in the juvenile justice system were low-income or received government assistance. “There is no doubt that the financial consequences are disastrous for families,” said Kim McGill, co-founder of the Coalition.

“You have to give some leniency to families that are poor, particularly now with the economy being the way it is and people out of work,” acknowledged Probation Commission President Clay Hollopeter.

In an interview with PLN, Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Children’s Rights Advocate for Human Rights Watch, said the County Board of Supervisors had ordered a panel to study and report on the issue of billing parents and guardians of juvenile offenders. The report was produced behind schedule, on September 22, 2009; it concluded that the Probation Department should continue collecting fees after making certain changes. Those changes included no expansion in the “use of private sector outsourcing” for bill collections, and using only earned wages to calculate a family’s ability to pay.

However, Human Rights Watch, in a letter to the Board of Supervisors dated October 8, 2009, noted that other provisions in the 12-page report appeared “to reflect a decision to pursue collections more aggressively.” For example, the report proposed “enhanced techniques such as wage garnishments and bank account levies,” and pursuing collection of SSI benefits from parents and guardians. Additionally, the department has proposed increasing the fees to $14.96 a day for youths held in probation camps and $29.28 per day for those held in juvenile halls.

According to Calvin, the Probation Department’s moratorium on billing parents and guardians to recover juvenile detention costs is still in effect. Other counties in California have safeguards to prevent improper billing and do not collect from legal guardians, unlike Los Angeles County.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, La Opinión, Human Rights Watch

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