“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 January 2017, a week before President Barack Obama left office, he issued an advisory from the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the levying of fines and fees on juveniles. It was meant to remind states as well as local jurisdictions about the statutory and constitutional rights of youth caught up in the juvenile system regarding fines and fees which included what was considered special nondiscrimination protections that apply to programs that receive federal financial assistance like county probation departments.
The advisory further spoke about the impact of additional financial obligations on youth and their families in the juvenile system stating, “Before courts impose fines and fees on juveniles—even on those rare juveniles who might be able to pay—they should consider whether such financial burdens serve rehabilitation. In many cases, fines and fees will be more punitive than rehabilitative, and they may in fact present an impediment to other rehabilitative steps, such as employment and education.”
Obama’s action further highlighted reporting by the New York Times earlier in 2017 that analyzed such fees being applied and collected in Alameda County, California.
The juveniles in that county’s justice system were charged about $2,000 on average. At the time this was equivalent to two months’ salary for a single parent earning the federal minimum wage; and what was even more compelling about the report was when the county’s costs associated with collecting the fees were weighed against the fees themselves, the county’s efforts netted nearly zero revenue.
Within months, California acted. In October 2017 then California Governor Jerry Brown signed a sweeping package of criminal justice reform measures which included a ban on the practice of billing parents for their children’s incarceration, a practice not only widespread across the state, it was applied disparately from county to county; and as with nearly every other aspect of the criminal justice system, Black and Brown families bore the heaviest financial burden.
Yet, despite these truly clear declarations at both the state and federal levels, Riverside County failed and/or refused to comply. The goal of California’s 2017 legislation, SB 190 was “[T]o eliminate a source of financial harm to some of the state’s most vulnerable families, support the reentry of youth back into their homes and communities, and reduce the likelihood that youth will recidivate.”
In 2019 the UC Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic prepared a report on the status of compliance to the legislation in counties across the state as a follow-up to an initial report on the subject published in 2017. Based on extensive analysis, while the researchers found for a majority of counties were complying with most aspects of the law relieving families of paying more than $237 million in fees, there were important instances where counties were not complying.
Riverside County was included among five counties in the state that failed to comply continuing to collect juvenile fees totaling more than $136 million. Riverside, San Diego, Orange, Tulare, and Stanislaus counties accounted for more than 95% of the total. Riverside County collected more than $15 million.
Riverside and the other four counties failed to comply with the law by continuing to charge juvenile fees to parents and guardians through such vehicles as child support orders and by charging prohibited and fees to young people ages 18–21 in criminal court.
In addition, according to the report, “Many counties have failed to notify young people and families of the new law and have not updated internal operating policies and procedures or public facing materials such as websites.” This is exactly what happened to Tiffine Hansbrough, a longtime resident of Riverside County and the single mother of two, who is also raising her nephew.
In recent years she worked several part-time jobs and earned additional income through the In-Home Support Services Program for time she spends caring for her disabled partner. She also relies on California’s food stamp program, CalFresh to maintain food security and the state’s public health insurance program, Medi-Cal for healthcare.
Riverside County began collection action against her in August 2010 for reimbursement of juvenile administrative fees, including costs of support due to her son’s court-ordered placement in juvenile institutions. The county continued its purportedly illegal collection efforts against her for nearly a decade.
However, the county apparently failed to evaluate Hansbrough’s ability to pay, and allegedly did not obtain a court order before beginning collection activities. She has also claimed the county failed to advise her of her right to an” ability-to-pay determination” or of her right to dispute any “ability-to-pay” determination in court before the collection was imposed. As a result, Hansbrough had no idea she had such rights before the collection activity was implemented against her.
In December 2019 three petitioners impacted by the county’s alleged failures to comply with the law, including Tiffine Hansbrough, and complainants Shirley and Daniel Freeman, filed suit on behalf of themselves and other families impacted by the fees against Riverside County, its Probation Department, and Chief Probation Officer Ronald L. Miller. The class of claimants are represented by the Western Center on Law & Poverty and the National Center for Youth Law.
The experiences of Shirley and Daniel Freeman were like Hansbrough’s, the county persisted in collection efforts against them for nearly ten years for approximately $8,000 in juvenile administrative fees related to their grandson’s encounter with the juvenile justice system.
The Freemans, who are both retired seniors whose primary source of income is Social Security, were raising three grandsons whose mother is deceased. Also, like Hansbrough, the county failed to advise them of their right to an “ability-to-pay” determination or their right to dispute any “ability-to-pay” determination in court before the collection was imposed.
In April 2020 Riverside County finally stopped collecting juvenile fees but has not issued reimbursements to the thousands of families including Hansbrough and the Freemans, who were wrongfully charged fees they could not afford.
Subsequently, Hansbrough and the Freemans submitted a supplemental and amended petition to the court reflecting the County’s April 2020 action, requesting the court limit their complaint to the second demand in their suit which calls for the return of money previously collected from them and other families.
The IE Voice and Black Voice News reached out to Courtney McKinney, Director of Communications with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, in an attempt to determine whether Black and Brown families were disproportionately impacted by Riverside County’s activities in this regard and whether there was data available to support such determination.
“Unfortunately, no one tracks fee burden by racial demographic,” she explained. So, we used the length of stay on probation conditions (detention in juvenile hall, electronic monitoring, etc.) to then multiply by the fee rate.”
She continued, “Because Black and Latinx youth were over punished, they also faced higher fee burdens. For example, the family of a Black youth serving average probation conditions was liable for more than double the juvenile administrative fees ($3,438) as the family of a White youth serving average probation conditions ($1,637).” See page 12-13 of the 2017 UC Berkeley Law School report Making Families Pay mentioned above for more detail.
As noted in the report, criminologists have found juvenile debt correlates with a greater likelihood of recidivism, even after controlling for case characteristics and youth demographics. This undermines the purpose of the juvenile system—rehabilitation.
Recently, a Riverside County spokesperson told the Press Enterprise it planned to “[P]ut up a rigorous defense against the allegations.
The IE Voice and Black Voice News also reached out to Riverside County seeking answers to a series of questions related to this issue including: Why the county continued to charge low income families these fees despite a California law stating such determination should be made by a judge? When the county finally stopped the fees and forgave any unpaid debt this earlier year, did this include accounts already referred for collections? What steps were taken to assist impacted individuals and families with repairing damage done to their credit due to unpaid fees? And finally, how much revenue did these fees generate for the county in 2017, 2018 and 2019?
The county’s Public Information Officer Brooke Federico replied, “Regarding the lawsuit, the county disagrees with the allegations in the complaint and will defend the matter.” Adding, “ I don’t have any further information to provide at this time.”
The amended complaint against Riverside County is available for review here.
S.E. Williams is editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News.