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Sonoma County officials signal plan to eliminate juvenile jail fees

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Sonoma County officials have signaled they plan to drop the $32 daily fee charged to families of children committed to juvenile hall, following the lead of other California counties in wiping out a cost that has saddled parents and guardians with millions of dollars in debt.

The Board of Supervisors could consider a plan early next month to eliminate the daily fee, which has long been charged to cover the cost of housing children in juvenile hall, the head of the county’s probation department said Tuesday.

The announcement comes in the wake of proposed state legislation that would eliminate juvenile detention fees statewide and a report Sunday in The Press Democrat detailing how Sonoma County’s fee translated into more than $4 million in outstanding bills for families, many of whom simply can’t afford to pay.

David Koch, the county’s chief probation officer, told supervisors the fee, in place for more than five decades, has an “inordinate financial impact on economically disadvantaged families,” noting that the “vast majority” of children in the juvenile justice system come from poorer backgrounds and many of them are people of color.

He said he hoped to present supervisors June 6 with a plan to nix both the daily $32 charge and the one-time juvenile supervision fee, which was just raised to $150, effective July 1. The supervision fee is charged to cover staff costs after offenders are released on probation.

Koch appears to have early support from supervisors, none of whom spoke in favor of keeping the daily fee at Tuesday’s board meeting. The fees have been on the books in California since 1961, but they’ve been criticized by advocates who argue they add yet another layer of hardship to families while offering little benefits to the counties who charge them.

“At the moment when we really are anticipating, expecting and hoping the families (will) step up and provide a safety net and good supervision for the underage youth, then we hit them with a stressor and a big fat bill,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman.

Supervisor Susan Gorin said The Press Democrat’s reporting on the issue last weekend “caught most of us a little bit by surprise.” She signaled support for eliminating the fee.

Earlier this year, a group of California legislators put forth a bill that would end the fees throughout the state, although its fate is uncertain after it stalled in committee last month. Regardless, momentum has been building around the state to get rid of the fees, as Bay Area counties including Santa Clara and Alameda have already repealed or suspended them.

If Sonoma County follows suit, the elimination could help juveniles who owe restitution focus on making those payments, Koch said.

“Rather than concentrating on paying for their cost of care, we would like them to focus on the accountability aspect and making good on restitution to victims,” he told the board.

Through the 12-month period that ends July 1, families will have paid the county about $317,000 in daily fees, according to the probation department. Koch previously estimated that managing fee collection costs the county $100,000 annually. That gap could be filled by a state funding source geared toward juvenile probation and camp services, he said in an interview Tuesday.

The apparent pivot on juvenile hall fees came during supervisors’ annual fee hearing, used to adjust charges administered across county departments.

Among the more than 670 other fee changes approved by supervisors, the vast majority are increases, although some fees were decreased while others were introduced or eliminated.

The changes are expected to produce $9.3 million in additional revenue, according to county staff, but that figure is a little misleading.

That’s because $7.8 million of the expected funds reflect rate increases from the Behavioral Health division. The higher rates, driven by increased staffing and business costs, are primarily billed to Medi-Cal, which is expected to reimburse about $4.8  million.

Outside the Behavioral Health division, fees charged to the county’s newly regulated medical marijuana industry are projected to bring in more than $637,000 in additional revenue. More than half of the new fees approved by supervisors are related to marijuana.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.

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