Today, statutes in all states make it discretionary (in 22 states) or mandatory (29) for the court to require a parent or guardian to pay at least part of the support costs for a juvenile who is adjudicated delinquent and placed out of the home. In evaluating an obligated party’s ability to pay, the court takes into consideration the family’s income, their necessary obligations, and the number of people dependent on this income.
Several states have proposed legislation on this issue. Arizona would add language that would allow the juvenile court to waive all or part of these support expenses if the court determined that extenuating circumstances existed. On the other extreme, Idaho proposed amending the parental support statute to state that the obligation of the parent or legal guardian to pay current and accrued amounts would continue until paid in full, regardless of the juvenile offender’s age. Finally, Utah has proposed a bill that would require the juvenile court to hold a hearing at the request of a juvenile’s parent or guardian on whether they should be required to pay child support for a juvenile being held in state custody.
In 57 of the 58 counties in California, the state with the highest population of incarcerated youth, young people’s families get billed a percentage of the counties’ costs for their prosecution, incarceration and probation. In Alameda County, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, for suspects older than 16, the meter starts running even before indictment, with a $250 charge for the investigation initiated after an arrest. For a juvenile who’s been detained for the 23-day average time in Alameda County the total bill will be close to $2,000. In that county, the fee for investigations, accurate or not, is charged even if a suspect is exonerated.
Beth Colgan, of Stanford Law School, who’s written about the history of fees charged by the criminal justice system, which she says incur as much as 12% interest in some states, said:
We’re trying to get blood from a stone in many situations. Counties often spend a lot more money trying to collect the fees than they recoup. These fees can be detrimental to people’s ability to get back on their feet. One of the strongest arguments against these fees is that they perpetuate inequality and poverty in a way that might make many people uncomfortable.
In the 29 states that require courts to order payment from parents (including California), parents’ financial responsibility begins from the moment an arrest happens. In some cases, parents can negotiate certain fees if they can’t pay, but rules vary around the country. When the bills aren’t paid, officials can involve collections agencies, deduct from parents’ wages or take their tax refunds.
Zoe Mathews, a working single mother of three, says she can’t afford the payment arrangement determined by Solano County for $7,500 fees related to her deceased child’s time in detention and on probation. She’s tried to negotiate with the county to waive the fees, but the county would only lower the monthly payment. The phone calls from county bill collections agency stopped, but Mathews is now receiving letters threatening to garnish her wages if she doesn’t pay. Mathews calls the fees to juvenile offenders unfair “double-dipping, ” once an offender has served time.
Incarceration is supposed to rehabilitate you, and you’re paying your debt back to society, so then they’re going to charge you an additional per night stay? I don’t think that’s right at all.