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PRESS RELEASE: San Diego latest California county to eliminate old juvenile fees, freeing thousands of families from oppressive debt

                   

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

18 counties continue to seek payment from vulnerable families during COVID-19 – Orange and Tulare remain top holdouts still collecting almost $50 million

San Diego — Today the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to discharge more than $40 million in old juvenile fees for roughly 9,100 families – many of whom live at or below the poverty line. The Board’s decision follows closely on the heels of neighboring Riverside County’s decision to discharge $4.1 million in juvenile fee debt last month and Stanislaus County’s decision to discharge $6.9 million in juvenile fees earlier this month.

“Today our board took a long overdue step to alleviate an unjust burden on youth and families by eliminated the outdated practice of collecting overdue juvenile fees,” said San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher. “I campaigned on this issue and upon election last year starting working to bring our county out of the dark ages and into a brighter future.”

Senate Bill 190, which went into effect on January 1, 2018, prohibited counties from charging families new juvenile fees, but it did not require counties to end collection of previously assessed fees – much of which is decades old. Most counties agreed with the intent behind SB 190 – to provide relief for vulnerable families and communities – and have voluntarily discharged old fees.

“With San Diego’s action today, 40 of California’s 58 counties have stopped collecting more than $300 million in past fees, because they’ve learned from research that these fees a regressive and racially discriminatory tax on vulnerable families that undermine key goals of the justice system,” said Jeffrey Selbin, Clinical Professor of Law at UC Berkeley Law School. “Families barely making ends meet even before the current economic crisis suffer the most from these fees, which do nothing to help their kids.”

A San Diego family featured in a February story in CalMatters has been billed and harassed for years for fees charged when their son was detained in juvenile hall. The County intercepted their tax return and put a lien on their house, all for the mistakes of a child – one of six – that the family adopted from the County: “You’re almost penalized for doing…the right thing” by adopting, the father said. “It’s kind of like we’ve done everything we can possibly do for these kids and it just comes at a huge price.”

San Diego acknowledged this kind of harm in today’s resolution ending juvenile fees:

These fees impact the County of San Diego’s rehabilitative goals for youth and families, many of whom already live below the poverty line. The debt follows families well after the child’s offense and term of probation is completed, affecting their ability to invest in basic needs such as education and healthcare, or financially preparing their child for life as an adult. The long-term consequences of these outstanding debts further exacerbate conditions of poverty for not only the affected families but for their surrounding community and can lead to further unintended costs to society.

San Diego’s action will become final on June 2, 2020, but is retroactive to February 14, 2020—the date the County declared a COVID-19 State of Emergency “to provide urgent and direct financial relief to these families who are already facing unprecedented financial hardships due to the unintended consequences of the COVID-19 global pandemic.”

In spite of the momentum of dozens of California counties providing relief for families – particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, holdout counties remain. Of the 18 counties that have not discharged old fees, Orange County is still collecting $38 million and Tulare is collecting $11 million. Advocates maintain an interactive map of the counties still charging fees.

“We are ecstatic to see that after years of young people and families organizing across the state, San Diego has become the next county to end the unjust practice of collecting juvenile system fee debt,” said Anthony Robles of Youth Justice Coalition, a lead organizer on the issue in California. “With all the growing momentum across the state, it is time for us to end these fees once-and-for all in California by passing SB 1290, a bill we are co-sponsoring which will be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee tomorrow.”

California Senate Bill 1290 seeks to eliminate juvenile fee debt altogether. In the meantime, as SB 1290 goes through the legislative process, and as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on public health and the economy, families in these holdout counties continue to be burdened by unnecessary fees.

“If passed, SB 1290 will provide substantial relief for families living in counties that have not followed the majority of counties in the state in acknowledging that these fees are bad policy with little fiscal benefit. Given the current economic crisis, families need all of their income to pay for basic needs,” said Rebecca Miller, senior litigator at Western Center on Law & Poverty, a co-sponsor of both SB 1290 and SB 190. “We hope that the hold out counties reconsider their duty to their residents and act now to discharge all remaining debt.”

Last month, more than 130 groups across the country and political spectrum called for a moratorium on all juvenile fees and fines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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PRESS RELEASE: Senators Maria Elena Durazo and Holly Mitchell introduce SB 1290 to ensure debt-free justice for all California youth

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SACRAMENTO – Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) and Senator Holly Mitchell (DLos Angeles) introduced Senate Bill 1290 (SB 1290) on February 21, 2020 to end the collection of administrative fees charged to youth 21 and under in the juvenile and criminal (adult) systems.

The Legislature abolished youth fees through the bipartisan passage of Senate Bill 190 in 2018, but the bill did not prevent counties from collecting fees that were assessed prior to the ban. This new legislation will close that loophole, ending the collection of more than $136 million charged predominantly to low-income families and disproportionately to families of color.

According to Senator Durazo, “Senate Bill 1290 will require counties to stop collecting and formally discharge these regressive and discriminatory fees. Programs that are meant to serve our communities should not be funded by collecting on the debt of very poor people. Most counties have already done the right thing by voluntarily waiving these old fees. Now it is time for the state to act to end them once and for all.”

A 2019 study by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law found that 36 of 58 California counties have voluntarily ended the collection of $237 million in previously assessed juvenile fees. However, 22 counties continue to pursue more than $136 million charged to the families of system-involved youth.

“Now is the time to erase ALL outstanding debt for families who are affected by the juvenile justice system,” says Senator Mitchell. “In 2017 I introduced SB 190, ending the costly assessment and collection of juvenile administrative fees. Senator Durazo’s bill takes the law a step further to make sure families are relieved from financial burdens erasing back-owed debt. We have to change the economic and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”

Just five counties – San Diego, Orange, Riverside, Tulare, and Stanislaus – are responsible for more than 95% of all outstanding fees.

San Diego County charged Andrew Simmons more than $15,000 in fees when his adopted son got into trouble. “We love our children and work to support the intensive care that many of them needed. Unfortunately, the bill has done nothing to relieve the burden placed on us by the County and has put the security of our younger children at risk by placing a lien on our house and indicating that they may garnish our wages,” said Simmons. “Not only is this a personal challenge for us but this practice was one of the reasons people did not adopt older children with special needs. The system should not punish people for opening their homes and giving young people a chance for a family and home.”

Researchers have also found that juvenile fees generate little or no revenue for counties. According to the co-author of the Berkeley study, Stephanie Campos-Bui, “The collection of these fees nets little revenue for counties because the vast majority of families cannot afford to pay. In fact, we found that some counties were spending more to collect fees than they were generating in revenue.”

In fiscal year 2014-15, Orange County spent over $1.7 million to employ 23 individuals to collect just over $2 million in juvenile administrative fees. Since 2018, Orange County’s estimate of annual collections has dropped to $1.1 million per year. In the two years since SB 190 ended new fees assessments, Orange County has collected less than 6% of outstanding juvenile fees. Riverside County reported collecting less than 3% of outstanding fees since January 2018.

Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law & Poverty, a bill co-sponsor, notes the high pain and low gain of counties continuing to collect youth fees: “These fees were bad public policy when they were enacted decades ago and they are bad public policy now. They undermined both youth rehabilitation and public safety with little documented economic benefit to the counties, which is why the Legislature abolished them in 2018 with a large bipartisan majority. We applaud Senator Durazo and the bill co-authors for taking this final step to end the harm of outstanding fees and look forward to working with community leaders and allies to secure the bill’s passage.”

Anthony Robles, an organizer with co-sponsor Youth Justice Coalition, sees SB 1290 as just the beginning of a growing national movement for change: “Years of organizing by directly impacted communities, formerly incarcerated youth and their families, with support from advocates and partners, has led to this strengthening movement to bring debt free justice to all California families and hopefully all families across the country.”

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CONTACTS
Jessica Bartholow – Western Center on Law & Poverty: (916) 282-5119; jbartholow[at]wclp.org

Anthony Robles – Youth Justice Coalition: (626) 838-9450; anthony[at]youth4justice.org

Western Center Reaction to Governor Newsom’s Proposed 2020-2021 Budget

First and foremost, Western Center is pleased that Governor Newsom’s proposed budget includes significant and innovative proposals to address the homelessness crisis in California, which will not only help the thousands of people currently experiencing homelessness, but will also prevent more people from losing their housing. We are also pleased to see the Governor take another major step toward providing health care for all by expanding Medi-Cal coverage to undocumented adults over age 65, and to see the extension of the tax ban on period products and diapers, which makes our tax code more equitable for women, girls and young families.

We were hoping to see additional investments for CalWORKs and SSI grants in this proposal, since they are both crucial for lifting Californians out of poverty. We will continue to advocate for those increases in the final budget agreement.

Below are our initial reactions to the proposed budget by issue area. We will release an in-depth analysis next week.

Housing

The proposed budget appropriately treats the state’s homelessness crisis as an emergency. The proposal devotes additional resources to help people at risk of homelessness remain stably housed and to increase both temporary shelter capacity and permanent housing options for people already experiencing homelessness. We are pleased to see the Governor’s sustained commitment to addressing homelessness and look forward to working in partnership with his administration and legislative leaders to further develop effective, sustainable solutions to the crisis that prioritize residents living in poverty.

We agree with the Governor that the state must ramp up efforts to address the state’s shortage of housing, which is primarily a shortage at lower income levels. We are eager to work with the Governor to ensure that policies and programs to speed housing production prioritize the creation of units for households with the lowest incomes who are priced out of the rental market in every county in the state, protect low-income communities and communities of color from displacement, and increase access to high opportunity areas for our clients.

Financial Security

The budget includes funding to increase the CalWORKs child support pass through (read about it here). Currently, the first $50 of child support paid by a non-custodial parent goes to the CalWORKs family, but any amount over that is kept by state and federal governments. In the Governor’s newly proposed budget, CalWORKs families with one child will keep the first $100 of child support, and families with two or more children will keep the first $200 of child support, beginning January 2022. It also includes funding to provide debt relief for child support owed to the government that is deemed uncollectable. We are grateful that the Governor has heard from parents and families in their call for a child support program that works for children, and we are eager to see proposed associated trailer bill law changes for details. We look forward to working with the Governor and legislature to achieve the goals of conforming with federal law and regulation, and ensuring the program works to benefit the children it purports to help.

The budget also includes the extension of the tax ban on period products and diapers, which will make our tax code more equitable, since taxes on period products and diapers are regressive to poor families and young people. We look forward to continuing work in the legislature to end unmet diaper need and period poverty in California.

Additionally, the budget makes a $92 million investment in reducing criminal justice fees and their harmful, recidivistic impact on people with low-incomes and people of color, their families, and their communities. We are grateful to Budget Chair Mitchell for her leadership on this issue and look forward to working on details with her, the Governor, and other budget leaders. We’re also happy to see that Californians with low incomes will soon be able to reduce the cost of their traffic fines and the overall impact of expensive traffic tickets, with this budget proposing to expand the traffic court ability-to-pay pilot program (currently operational in four counties) statewide over several years. The pilot has yet to be evaluated, so we look forward to details from the Judicial Council to see if the program’s reductions in fines and fees are adequate or need to reduced further.

Finally, to further enhance financial security for Californians, the Governor’s budget creates a new state version of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The proposed financial watchdog will hold banks and other financial firms accountable when they engage in unfair and abusive debt collection and banking practices. Medical, student loan, school lunch, and other forms of debt disproportionally burden people experiencing poverty; we expect this new agency to offer important protections for our clients.

Health Care

We applaud the Governor for continuing to move toward universal coverage by making California the first in the nation to expand full-scope Medi-Cal to all income-eligible seniors regardless of immigration status, taking a whole person approach to Medi-Cal, and cost containment with an eye toward quality and equity. We look forward to working with the administration and legislature to advance a budget that ensures equitable access to affordable, comprehensive, quality health care for poor Californians.

The Governor’s proposal also delays suspension of benefits and eligibility, by extending certain Medi-Cal benefits (optical, audiology, podiatry, speech therapy, and incontinence creams and washes), extending Medi-Cal eligibility from 60 days to one year for post-partum women diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and expanding Medi-Cal screening for the overuse of opioids and illicit drugs, all until July 2023.

 

Wrecked – Vehicle towings take a huge toll on America’s poor.

Mary Lovelace was living in Brentwood, California, and working as an interior designer. As a home-improvement specialist, she would drive a minimum of 365 miles every day in her car, carrying samples including doors, windows, and hardware in the trunk and backseat.

“Then the recession hit, between 2007 and 2009,” Lovelace recalls. “It kept getting worse and worse.” Fewer people were hiring interior designers, and eventually Lovelace was laid off. She received unemployment, which wasn’t enough to cover her rent after other expenses. She tried without success to find other work. She was eventually evicted from her rented house. A friend in nearby San Francisco let her stay in his garage. She parked her car across the street.

Parking tickets began to accumulate on the car. Some tickets, she says, listed the wrong address, a block and a half from where the vehicle was parked; sometimes the dates did not match. After a while, the car was “booted”—a metal device clamped on the wheel to render it immobile.

Nearly 50,000 towing businesses operate in the U.S., and they have already generated more than $8 billion in revenue so far this year.

…Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy for the Western Center on Law & Poverty, a California-based public interest law firm and contributor to the report, points to revelations from Ferguson, Missouri, as an example of what has been happening elsewhere.

Read more 

 

Lawsuit: Los Angeles Overcharges Poor Probationers

At the legal clinic run by A New Way of Life, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides shelter and services to formerly incarcerated women and their children, attorneys noticed a concerning pattern.

Community members who served jail or prison time persistently told attorneys that they “were being charged excessive amounts for the cost of probation, amounts that they couldn’t ever hope to repay,” said C.T. Turney-Lewis, the group’s supervising staff attorney. Oftentimes, they “have no income and were leaving probation with thousands and thousands of dollars in outstanding costs.”

…The criminal justice-related fees assessed by California counties are among the highest in the country, with Los Angeles topping the list, according to a study by the Western Center on Law & Poverty, an advocacy group of legal scholars. 

Read more

GUEST BLOG: Understanding the impact of criminal administrative fees, and how solutions like SB 144 can move California toward a more equitable future

By Stephanie Campos-Bui

I am a supervising attorney in the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, where we have been researching fines and fees in the justice system since 2013.

In 2017, we worked closely with Senator Mitchell and then-Senator Lara on Senate Bill 190, co-sponsored by Western Center, Youth Justice Coalition, and PolicyLink, among others, which repealed county authority to charge juvenile fees to families of young people in California. One year into implementation of SB 190, all 58 counties have stopped charging juvenile fees.

Given what we learned about juvenile fees, we are now supporting research efforts on fee assessment and collection practices in the criminal (adult) justice system. We have already observed similar findings to those in the juvenile space.

The majority of fees currently charged to people who come into contact with the justice system were authorized during the 1980s and 90s during the War on Drugs, and when the state faced a multi-billion-dollar deficit — the Legislature turned to fine and fee revenue to fill funding holes.

As a result, the existing fee scheme in California is wide-reaching and overly complex. At nearly every point in the criminal legal process, California state law authorizes counties to charge fees. From booking and arrest, representation by a public defender, to court-ordered programs and probation supervision, an individual can face a host of fees, including for collection. Counties also have discretion on the amount charged, so practices vary widely across California. In San Diego County, an adult on probation for five years can be charged almost $12,000, but just miles over in neighboring Imperial County, they would be charged $1,700.

To protect individuals against excessive fees, state law allows, but does not mandate, counties to consider an individual’s income and resources before assessing fees. In many instances, counties do not conduct meaningful ability-to-pay determinations or any determinations at all, leaving individuals with bills they cannot afford and will never pay.

We saw this in the recent Court of Appeals decision, People v. Duenas, in which Western Center was involved on behalf of the defendant, Duenas. In that case, LA County failed to assess whether a single mother, Velia Duenas, could pay the fines and fees imposed against her. In addition to finding the county in violation of due process under the United States and California Constitution, the court recognized that “…imposing unpayable fines on indigent defendants is not only unfair, it serves no rational purpose, fails to further the legislative intent, and may be counterproductive.”

Our ongoing research has shown that the snowball effect of fees can cause significant economic and social harm, while generating low revenue. Fees can quickly add up to thousands of dollars, and once imposed, can become civil judgments, subjecting individuals to tax intercepts and wage garnishments, which impacts credit scores and limits access to stable employment, housing, education, and public benefits. A survey conducted by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that the average debt for fines and fees was $13,607.

According to a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, people sometimes turn to underground communities or criminal activity to manage the financial strain of high outstanding fees. Studies have also found that criminal justice debt correlates with a greater likelihood of an individual returning to prison. Those negative outcomes not only harm public safety, but also makes reentry into society much harder.

Unsurprisingly, all of this disproportionately harms low-income people and people of color. Due to over-policing and targeted policing in communities of color, Black and Brown people are punished more frequently and harshly at a variety of discretion points, which leads to higher fee burdens.

Theoretically, fees are intended to help local jurisdictions recoup costs associated with the justice system. Yet counties often recover only a small proportion of what they assess. In Alameda County, the rate of collection on probation supervision fees during 2017 was 4%.  In San Francisco, the collections rate for probation fees in 2016 was 9%.

Such low return rates are not a result of lax collection efforts, but because most system-involved individuals are low-income and cannot afford to pay the fees. For example, in Humboldt County, eighty-four percent of people on probation had a monthly income of less than $1,000.

Additionally, counties spend significant resources trying to assess and collect fees. Records from LA County showed that in fiscal year 2017-18, the County spent $3.9 million to collect $3.4 million in probation fees, resulting in a loss of half a million dollars. Even in counties where collection costs don’t exceed revenue, the resources put toward collection efforts—both within county and to private agencies—do not result in significant returns. And fees are not just costly, they also crowd out spending on positive social goods like healthcare and education. The lack of investment in those areas imposes harm over time, prolongs and exacerbates poverty, and generates costs to families, communities, and society.

The good news is that we have already seen reform across the state. Los Angeles County eliminated its public defender registration fee in 2017 after recognizing the fee’s potential to dissuade people from using their constitutionally-guaranteed right to counsel. San Francisco County eliminated 12 criminal administrative fees and penalties in June 2018, discharging $32 million, and Alameda County ended the assessment and collection of five administrative fees in November 2018, discharging $43 million.

Statewide, SB 190 ended juvenile fee assessments as of January 1, 2018, and 36 of 58 counties opted to go beyond the requirements of the law by also ending collection on over $236 million in outstanding fees, which underscores the commitment counties have to doing right by the populations they serve.

This year, Senate Bill 144, co-sponsored by Western Center, ACLU California, East Bay Community Law Center, PolicyLink, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Youth Justice Coalition, and more, builds on these reform efforts by tackling the array of fees and costs charged to people in the criminal justice system. The bill addresses fees charged for booking and arrest, representation by counsel, diversion and alternative programming, probation, court-ordered programs and classes, drug and alcohol testing, collection fees, and civil assessments. The bill also seeks to end collection on unpaid fees and discharge and vacate outstanding debt.

The use of fines and fees has widened the reach and impact of the justice system to include more people, and has created long-lasting collateral consequences which ultimately serve the racially motivated underpinnings upon which our justice system was built—to control and marginalize black and brown communities. Fees and fines are not a reasonable answer for any of society’s problems — the criminal justice system should be funded by a more stable, predictable, and equitably-generated source of funding. SB 144 is a substantial step in that direction.

 

Western Center, Debt Free Justice Coalition Sponsoring Bill to End Criminal Justice Admin Fees

Senate Bill 144, introduced by Senator Holly J. Mitchell, was amended with text that will end the assessment and collection of administrative fees imposed against people in the criminal justice system. By doing so, it would dramatically reduce the economic hardships caused by court-ordered debt and enhance the economic security of system-involved populations, their families and their communities. SB 144 will usher in an era of criminal justice policy that does not rely on stripping wealth from communities of color and low-income communities. The Debt Free Justice Coalition is sponsoring the legislation and has issued the following statements:

“Eliminating administrative fees will allow formerly incarcerated people to devote their already limited resources to critical needs like food, education, housing and health insurance. Repealing criminal fees will result in improved employment prospects for formerly incarcerated people and put more money in the pockets of economically insecure families, aiding successful reentry and reducing California’s recidivism rate.”

— Jessica Bartholow, Western Center on Law and Poverty

Read full statement here.