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.