After inquiries by the L0s Angeles Times about their billing practices, Los Angeles County probation officials imposed a temporary moratorium on fees charged to parents and guardians for each day a youth spends in county detention. A Times investigation found that thousands billed told probation officials they could not afford to pay. Last year, more than 8,100 people who failed to pay bills were scheduled to meet with financial evaluators. Few got relief. Only 198 had fees waived, including 57 on public assistance. Until Friday, Los Angeles County charged $11.94 a day for probation camps and $23.63 a day for juvenile halls. That is a small fraction of the $100 to $200 cost per day of detaining the 20,000 youths who enter the county’s 19 camps and three halls each year.
Despite increasingly aggressive billing policies, only $2.6 million of the $23.6 million billed last year was recovered. To recover even that small portion, the county spent $812,000 on a five-person probation fee collections office and $56,000 on an Austin, Tx.-based collections agency. Probation Director Robert Taylor stands behind billing families. Without financial accountability, he and some county supervisors say, parents would be more prone to dump wards on the juvenile justice system. After staffers at the county board of supervisors questioned whether some of the billing was legal — questions asked after The Times cited specific cases to supervisors earlier this week — Taylor said he decided to review department practices. Critics of the policy argue that it strains families just when they most need support: when the youth returns home. “The county does not appear to have made the effort to discern who can afford to pay and who cannot,” said one county supervisor. “There ought to be a high level of concern about what we’re doing.” In numerous instances, the Times found, the county went after grandparents, extended family members, and even foster parents who had taken in troubled children.