Children in debt: Sacramento County to stop charging kids for getting locked up in juvenile hall

Sacramento charges parents of children in trouble more than any other county in California

Michael Rizo looks out the window as he sits on a couch inside the Anti Recidivism Coalition’s Sacramento office. Rizo mentors children facing the same challenges he did as a youth caught up in the juvenile justice system.

Michael Rizo looks out the window as he sits on a couch inside the Anti Recidivism Coalition’s Sacramento office. Rizo mentors children facing the same challenges he did as a youth caught up in the juvenile justice system.

PHOTO BY Gavin McIntyre

Raised in a low-income, single-parent home in West Sacramento, Michael Rizo always felt the odds were stacked against him. His mother struggled with drug addiction, and his father walked out when he was 3 years old. At age 11, Rizo went to juvenile hall for the first time following a burglary arrest.

But rather than being scared straight, as Rizo tells it, he found himself encouraged to go further down the wrong path.

“Everybody in [juvenile hall] was praising me because I was the youngest one there,” Rizo said. “[That] gave me the motivation that I wanted, though not positive motivation. … I was unaware of what I was getting myself into.”

Rizo recalls being incarcerated in Sacramento’s Youth Detention Facility for a day or two before being released. When he got out, he says, he became immersed in a culture of violence, drugs and theft. Rizo involved himself with gangs, got into multiple fights and burglarized houses for prescription painkillers that he turned around and sold at school. He cycled in and out of incarceration on a regular basis for the next 10 years.

Now 21, Rizo has been a free man for the past 11 months. He has a daughter and works as an intern for the Sacramento chapter of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition—a statewide support and advocacy network intent on steering youth out of the criminal-justice system.

But for all his efforts to turn his life around, Rizo and his grandmother, who adopted him at age 3, are saddled with debt. These debts were accumulated through juvenile-justice fees—the label for costs levied on parents and young adults to pay for their drug tests, ankle monitors, legal representation and incarceration.

Rizo has owed money to both Sacramento and Yolo counties over the years. Currently, he said, he owes Yolo County $10,000 in juvenile-justice fees that he accumulated after turning 18, while his grandmother owes the same county $2,500 from when he was a minor.

But this vortex of incarceration and debt for children sucked into the juvenile-justice system will soon change in the county that levies higher fees than any other.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors moved last month to end juvenile-justice fees—and write off those already levied but not paid—effective July 1. The April 11 vote occurred during the consent portion of the board’s agenda, meaning there was no discussion, no fanfare for a striking policy shift that will be far reaching.

Under state law, counties are given license to levy fees “to recoup reasonable costs from parents whose children are housed in a juvenile detention center, and from parents whose children are on probation and subject to supervision, electronic monitoring and drug testing,” a Probation Department report states.

Supposedly, the state limits the fees to only those who can afford them, but that rarely plays out in reality. The problem is that these fees disproportionately affect the poor, and may in fact feed into increased recidivism, according to the same report:

“Since most of the youth in the juvenile justice system come from economically disadvantaged families, a very small portion of the fees is collected. … Indeed, juvenile fees are considered doubtful from the start and not booked into the county’s financial system. Over time, most fees are written-off.”

The report was unclear on what standards the Department of Revenue Recovery uses to assess a family’s ability to pay, and repeated messages left at the department were not returned.

According to the report, the juvenile-justice fees collected from youth and their families last fiscal year amounted to $385,000, which went into the county’s general fund. The county expects to take a financial hit of about the same amount when the fees are eliminated.

But that represents only what’s collected. As of February 28 of this year, the Department of Revenue Recovery report states that $23.2 million in fees went uncollected over the life of the policy. The amount is so high, in part, because of what Sacramento County charges the parents of children it locks up.

According to the Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, Sacramento County levies the heaviest juvenile-justice fees in the state. The clinic estimated that fees in Sacramento County, for an average probation sentence, came to approximately $5,640 per person. The next most expensive average was $2,150 for San Diego County, followed by Kern County at $1,850.

In 2005, Sacramento County supervisors approved resolution 2005-1490, which authorized the Probation Department to increase some of the fees imposed on parents. The decision created new monthly fees in three categories that were previously free—$725 per month for electronic monitoring, $206 for juvenile supervision and $20 for drug testing. The daily fee for being incarcerated at the Youth Detention Facility also rose, from $12 a day to $18.40 per day.

Tim Kline, who serves on the Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, said many counties boosted their lockup prices around the same time. “A lot of counties during the recession increased the amount of these fees because they weren’t getting as much tax revenue and they were looking for any way to bring in more money,” Kline said. “And they didn’t study what these fees really were, and they didn’t realize these fees would put a huge burden on the families.”

Sacramento isn’t the first county to forgo juvenile fees. According to Kline, San Francisco never collected the fees, and several other counties stopped levying the fees after reviewing their impacts.

Kline said the dominoes really started falling after the Los Angeles Times investigated its county’s juvenile-justice fees in 2008. The county soon ended the practice. More recently, Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties stopped charging families of kids in legal trouble within the past year.

Though Sacramento’s move to cease collecting fees isn’t unprecedented, Kline said the fact that the Probation Department, the Public Defender’s Office and the Department of Revenue Recovery were the ones to push for abolishing the fees was unique.

“Sacramento is the only county we know of where the … proposal to end the fees came from the offices that these funds are supposed to support,” Kline said. “I think they deserve a lot of credit for acknowledging the harm these fees cause families, and also acting to stop those harms.”

Steve Garrett of the Public Defender’s Office said the financial strain on families was a significant reason why the departments lobbied to end the practice. “The concern was that it might be unduly affecting the children’s lives, and the county decided in view of that they didn’t want to [continue to] do it,” Garrett said. “It was a political decision and made for the benefit of the community that the county serves.”

Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale agreed, adding that the county’s priority is to curb recidivism. Juvenile-justice fees, he said, often work against that goal. “The impetus is to help youth and their families get back on track,” Seale said. “Saddling the family with debt could, in fact, lead to worse outcomes rather than better ones.”

At the state level, Sens. Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara introduced Senate Bill 190, which would eliminate the financial obligation on parents and greatly curb fees levied against those 21 and under. The bill will come to the Senate Appropriations Committee for a vote later this month, according to a spokeswoman from Mitchell’s office, though no specific date has been set.

Rizo would like to see the juvenile-justice cottage industry permanently killed. Aside from the financial burden, he said the fees have had a negative impact on his family. “It weighed hard on me because I felt like I was taking … from my siblings,” Rizo said. “It just tore me apart.”

Between juvenile hall and a home life where he felt the constant financial burden he was putting on his family, Rizo said he felt trapped. After a sentencing hearing at 13, Rizo recalled, his grandmother visited him in jail and asked him how she was supposed to pay for everything.

“The visit ended right there because we just argued,” Rizo said. “We weren’t talking about the time I had to do, we just argued about the money. She didn’t come to visit me for awhile after that. It was upsetting, because we had a bad relationship after that.”

Today, Rizo’s mother is drug free with a stable job and caring for his siblings. As for Rizo, he’s working to pay off the fees he still owes and advocating for the kids who remind him of himself back in the day.

“Most of the kids [in the system] right now, their parents aren’t wealthy. Their parents don’t have enough money to even buy them a T-shirt, to buy them some clothes, to actually provide food for them and stuff like that,” he said. “Some of them come from single-parent households. How do you expect a single parent to pay [these fees]? It just keeps stacking and stacking and stacking. The juvenile system shouldn’t keep locking you up.”