“On Dec. 6, the county settled a 2019 suit brought by Inland Counties Legal Services, Western Center on Law & Poverty and the Public Interest Law Project. It was filed on behalf of two county residents. Riverside County settled with the same groups over similar issues in 2019.”
San Bernardino County settles lawsuit over benefits for poorest residents
Last month, Western Center filed a motion for class certification in our case, Freeman v. Riverside County, which challenges how Riverside County charged fees to parents and guardians whose children were involved in the juvenile legal system. The case was filed together with our co-counsel, the National Center for Youth Law.
Families were charged daily “costs of support” – $30 or so per day for each day their child was in detention. State law required the county to assess families’ ability to afford the costs, which were often thousands of dollars, and provide procedural due process before collecting. Riverside did nothing – just calculated the fees and sent the totals to collection. Our case seeks to shine a light on this abuse of government authority, and asks for a refund of illegally collected fees.
Fortunately, the authority to charge these types of juvenile fees has been eliminated in California, as well as counties’ ability to collect older fees. The story behind this case is important, not just for accountability in Riverside, but also because there are still many fees charged to overpoliced communities in California.
Cases like this one demonstrate why advocates are fighting for abolition of juvenile and adult criminal fees – not a reduction or ability to pay process. There are important racial equity principles behind that goal, because of who the juvenile and adult legal systems target. There are also common sense administrative policy reasons for fee abolition, mainly that ability to pay processes are inequitable and don’t work. Our case in Riverside shows that even when state law requires an ability to pay process, it is not followed, or it’s followed so ineptly or inconsistently that it becomes meaningless. Ability to pay processes also replicate racial bias in the courts and legal system.
As this case proceeds, I must share our appreciation and admiration for our clients who have worked with us on this case for over two years, and for their bravery in telling their stories. We are hopeful for a good outcome, and that the class data we may be able to obtain illustrates why shifting the cost of government onto individuals through user fees causes inequity, and in a nutshell, constitutes wealth stripping from low income communities and communities of color.
“Unfortunately, no one tracks fee burden by racial demographic… Because Black and Latinx youth were over punished, they also faced higher fee burdens.” -Courtney McKinney, Director of Communications with the Western Center on Law and Poverty
In the past year, Riverside County increased the number of people to whom it provided “general relief” by 3,900% in response to a lawsuit filed by three California social justice law firms which argued the county’s system made the cash assistance program hard to access for indigent individuals, particularly those who were homeless.
The $3 million county-funded, state-mandated general relief program (also called general assistance) provides temporary financial assistance to adults who don’t have access to other assistance programs such as Social Security income, disability assistance, unemployment benefits or other programs. The program generally helps single adults who don’t fit into the programs that come with age, disability or family qualifiers.
…“In some cases, folks were telling us they would go to the social services office to apply and would be told by workers that if you are homeless you aren’t even eligible,” said Alexander Prieto, a senior attorney from the Western Center on Law and Poverty.