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Standing in the hallway outside a hearing room at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, you see benches filled with teenagers and their families–waiting to appear in court– many dressed up in button down shirts and ties, looking their Sunday best. A lot of moms, too, and little brothers and sisters who’d clearly rather be elsewhere.
Many teens are here for trials and probation hearings, but on any given day, others are trying to negotiate fines and fees.
The bill starts adding up before the courtroom — when you’re arrested. Even if you’re innocent, in Alameda County, the investigation alone will cost you 250 bucks.
“You get fined for the public defender,” said Debra Mendoza, probation officer turned advocate, who can list fees off the top of her head. “You get charged for incarceration. There’s a fee for being in juvenile hall. There’s a daily fee if you’re on GPS.”
If you add the fees together for a juvenile who’s been incarcerated for the average time in this county, the total bill will be close to $2,000.
It’s parents who are responsible for the bill. And that’s the trend across the country.
“There are more and more criminal justice fees that are added every year in this country,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, legal scholar at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice. “In recent years, about 20 state legislatures passed laws holding parents responsible for their children’s crimes,” said Eisen.
In California, parents have the right to negotiate fees, but it’s not easy. If they don’t pay, officials can garnish parents’ wages, take their tax refunds, or place liens against property. In Alameda County, one of the poorest counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, half of the fees charged to parents remain unpaid. That’s according to the county’s own data, based on a recent five-year period.
“And sometimes it is more expensive administratively to collect these fees than the money you are actually receiving in revenue.” said Eisen. “That’s the great irony of the situation.”
At the Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro, California, Joshua Hopkins, is sitting on a bench waiting to be called into a hearing. Hopkins is 13, but he looks a lot older.
“People mess with me and then they get me frustrated, and then they just like to push my buttons. And when they push my buttons, I get very upset and I fight,” said Hopkins.
The fighting has led to time in juvenile detention. And that adds up to a lot of fees, according to his mom, LaPorscha John.
“So basically, this is my statement of account. So I owe a total of $736,” she said.
Ms. John owes the money, even though her son is not in her care. Because of a mental health issue, Joshua lives in a private group home. But his mom is still responsible for the court fees when he messes up.
“He is my son… But I’m getting hurt, because it’s financially creating hardship,” she said.
Terry Wiley, Assistant District Attorney for Alameda County’s Juvenile Division, said, “That’s part of being a parent, you’re responsible for your kids and their actions.”
If young people and their families have a problem paying, Wiley said there’s a straightforward solution. “Don’t be committing crimes and you won’t owe any money. Very simple.”
For Zoe Mathews, it’s not simple at all.
In 2010, her son DeShawn Morris was incarcerated for the better part of a year. Months after being released from jail, he was shot and killed. Her son was dead, but the debt lived on, including ongoing calls from county collections.
“It’s a constant reminder that, no — he’s not here anymore,” she said.
Mathews’ son was locked up for 208 days at a cost of almost $30 per day.
“By being incarcerated, you’re paying your debt back to society. So then they’re going to charge you an additional per-night stay as if there were some options?” said Mathews. “The bills are additional stress to already a very painful situation that I will be dealing with for the rest of my life.”
Mathews said the county agreed to reduce her monthly payment, but won’t reduce the total bill. More than $7,500 for her deceased son’s fees.
Double Charged is a special investigation into the U.S. juvenile justice system, produced by Youth Radio.
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