March 2, 2017; Washington Post
Last week, the Washington Post reported on an examination by The Marshall Project of the practice of billing parents for their children’s incarceration—in jails, detention centers, court-ordered treatment facilities, training schools or disciplinary camps—by 19 state juvenile-justice agencies. In at least 28 other states, individual counties can legally do the same. As readers will remember, such fee-seeking practices figured intensely in Ferguson, Missouri, as part of the breakdown between the city’s residents and the criminal justice system; the same is true in many other low-income communities.
This particular practice has existed for almost 40 years. The intent, when put into place in the 1970s and 1980s, was to stop parents from using the justice system to discipline their unruly children. Parents would have their children arrested when they could not control them, and as a result, juvenile systems across the country decided to charge them fees as a deterrent.
The laws and practice of billing parents for their children’s incarceration vary from state to state; in some states, it even differs from county to county depending where the offense took place. According to The Marshall Project, of the nation’s 50 state-level juvenile justice systems, 19 regularly or sometimes bill parents for their children’s detention. California, Pennsylvania, and several other states have highly decentralized juvenile justice systems; their state agencies do not bill parents—but most of their counties do.
The basic premise is the same: a monthly bill, generally for a few hundred dollars, that covers a part of their child’s cost of incarceration. Florida has a Cost of Care brochure that breaks down the law and the charges. In that state, parents are charged between one and five dollars a day, depending on the circumstances of the child’s incarceration. The Marshall Project found that a dozen states make use of an existing metric—standard child-support guidelines—while other states run a “parental reimbursement unit” that charges the parents a flat sum. Parents of youth detained in privately operated facilities are apt to pay the highest rates.
Parents can still be billed for charges even if their child is later proven innocent. When Mariana Cuevas’s son was released from a California jail after being detained in a juvenile hall for more than 300 days for a homicide he did not commit, she received a bill for $10,000 for her son’s incarceration. Her son’s public defender, Jeffrey Landau, was stunned, stating, “Sure, your son was stolen from you for a year, but here’s what it cost.”
A disproportionate amount of the families affected by this practice are poor and unable to afford the payments. Cuevas, a Bay Area home cleaner, was only able to make payments of $5 a month on the bill. Though some states and counties do offer payment arrangements or income-based fee reductions, there’s often a disparate impact on those at the lowest income levels. Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit wrote in his decision favoring Maria Rivera, a parent who sold her house and went bankrupt to pay Orange County more than $9,500 for her son’s incarceration, that “Not only does such a policy unfairly conscript the poorest members of society to bear the costs of public institutions, operating ‘as a regressive tax,’ but it takes advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable, essentially imposing ‘a tax upon distress.’”
When the bills go unpaid, juvenile justice systems will make efforts to collect the amounts owed, even employing collection agencies and attorneys. Just like with child support, states may tack on interest, garnish 50 percent of parents’ wages, seize their bank accounts, intercept their tax refunds, suspend their driver’s licenses, and/or charge them with contempt of court. The city of Philadelphia has an attorney, Steve Kaplan, whose purpose is to collect these charges. His city contract is paid up to $316,000 a year in salary and bonuses, more than any city employee, including the mayor. He is an advocate of the practice and feels that parents are obligated to support their children regardless of in what facility they are located. He is quoted as saying, “Child support is child support is child support. It really doesn’t matter if the kid lives with Mom, Dad, Aunt Betsy, or with me—Uncle Steve—in detention. I mean, do we think the taxpayers should be supporting these bad kids?”
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The Washington Post found that many juvenile-corrections administrators agree, saying that the payment system is a way of keeping parents engaged with their children, whose food, clothing and medical expenses they would be paying for anyway. “It increases buy-in. It keeps the parents’ skin in the game,” said James Bueche, who heads Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice. He went on to tell The Marshall Project that in a state with severe budget problems, his department needs all the funding it can get.
But is all of the work and cost that goes into collecting these fees worth it? This practice actually does not merit much financial gain, according to a research study by juvenile defenders at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley. They teamed up with students at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law to gather county-level data to determine whether the payment requirement was actually cost-effective. The data collected shows that it is not. In fiscal 2014–2015, Alameda County, which encases Oakland, spent $250,938 collecting $419,830 from parents. The Marshall Project reported that Philadelphia netted just $551,261 from parents of delinquent children in fiscal 2016, a small fraction of the $81,148,521 the city spent on all delinquent placements, according to city records. They also found a similar pattern in financial data gathered from all 50 states—significant operating budgets for collections officers and mailing out invoices, but low amounts of money actually collected from the families.
The practice also underscores the paradox of treating the entire family for a child’s problem. As Jessica Feierman, associate director of Juvenile Law Center, a national advocacy group based in Philadelphia, told The Marshall Project, “Here’s a family that needs support, and what we’re going to do instead is put a whole lot of economic pressure on them? Parents don’t choose for their kids to go to jail. They just don’t.”
Anders Jacobson, director of the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections, which does not bill parents, agrees, stating that any well-functioning juvenile justice system depends on youths returning home to a stable environment. He went on to say that thrusting parents into debt undercuts their ability to keep the lights on and the refrigerator stocked. Many of these households are already dealing with the other costs from their child’s crime, which can include steep rates for phone calls, gas for long-distance visits, and thousands of dollars in restitution and public defender fees. These incarceration bills add an extra financial burden to an already stressful situation.
So what is being done to discuss this obviously outdated and non-fruitful practice? Many counties and cities are already working to abolish it and forgive those parents’ debts. Because of the findings of the group of juvenile defenders at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley and students at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, Alameda County in Oakland has banned it outright, forgiving the debt of almost 3,000 families. In Philadelphia, juvenile defenders learned about the city’s collection practices last year from the parents of clients and alerted a group of law students at Temple University, who brought the issue to the attention of aides in the office of Mayor Jim Kenney. The Post reported that Heather Keafer, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, said that the students made a “compelling argument” and that the department has asked the state of Pennsylvania for a legal review as to whether abandoning the practice would be allowable under existing state and federal regulations. A spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services said the matter is still under review, in part because the decision must apply not just to Philadelphia but for all Pennsylvania counties, and practices vary widely.
This was not fast enough for Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who called for a hearing about the law this past Friday. Just before the hearing was due to take place, the city of Philadelphia announced it would stop billing parents for the cost of their children’s incarceration, just hours after the front-page Marshall Project story in the Washington Post highlighted the practice in the city and across the nation. The Philadelphia Department of Human Services told the Washington Post that the decision to stop charging parents would go into effect immediately. The agency plans to end its contract with Steve Kaplan.
DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said in a statement to the Washington Post that “Our priority is to reunify families safely and quickly, and this decision is a great move forward toward that goal.” Many of the advocates against the policy expressed excitement about Friday’s decision, but are still cautious. “We’re hoping they take their commitment seriously and aren’t just doing this because of the national attention happening today,” said Lauren Fine, the co-founder and co-director of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, a nonprofit legal organization that assists juveniles in the justice system. Colleen Shanahan, a Temple law professor, went on to say that “Philly’s not the only place doing this, clearly, and I think this should be an opportunity for other places around the country to look at this practice.”
Hopefully other counties and states around the country will take note and abolish this harmful system that adds even more to the cost of parenting.—Alexis Buchanan