California counties are prohibited from collecting legal fees from families affected by the juvenile legal system thanks to a law passed on January 1, 2018. But a study conducted by the Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic on behalf of the Western Center on Law & Poverty has found that 22 counties have “violated” the injunction.
The study concluded that the repeal of youth legal fees has led to “hundreds of millions of dollars in relief for California families,” while pointing out that more work remains ahead after almost two years of the bill’s implementation.
Study co-authors Stephanie Campos-Bui and Jess Bartholow identified state counties who continue to charge fees, demand past fees, and bill families through the child support system.
Before State Bill 190 went into effect, “county records showed that California families with youth in the juvenile legal system had more than $374 million in outstanding fee assessments,” the study said.
Even though SB 190 did not waive previously assessed fees, “36 counties voluntarily discharged or stopped collecting them, relieving hundreds of thousands of families of more than $237 million,” the authors added
For Sonya N., a single mother mentioned in the study who is raising two children in San Mateo County, her thousands of dollars in legal fees from her son’s juvenile case was a heavy burden. She calls SB 190 “a blessing” and told the study’s authors, “When the County cleared the old fees, it was less of a struggle to buy gas or pay for my family’s basic needs.”
In spite of this significant progress, about 400 miles away in San Diego County, parents Andrew and Christina S. have been coping with $15,000 in juvenile fees that accumulated when their adopted son had a run-in with the law.
They were relieved when SB 190 was passed, they told the study’s authors, but that feeling quickly diminished.
“Instead of applying the tenets of SB 190, the County accelerated collection efforts with a judgment, lien, and now threats to garnish our wages,” the parents said. “We would hope that all families with juvenile fees can get relief.”
Twenty-two counties are actively violating SB 190 by still pursuing over $136 million in previously defined juvenile legal fees. Five of those 22 counties: San Diego, Orange, Riverside, Tulare, and Stanislaus are doing the most damage, with San Diego still collection $58 million from vulnerable families.
The researchers also found that the counties not in compliance with the law also failed to notify families of this internal change, and many have not updated internal-and external-facing fee policies, creating confusion for the people most impacted. Even though these changes were not required by the Senate Bill, it’s recommended considering the lack of communication is indicative of failing transparency between the counties and its people, the authors say.
Researchers included other recommendations for change to be implemented by the Counties and the State of California, including:
- Stop “assessing all SB 190-prohibited fees through child support order and to young people ages 18-21 in criminal court” with the oversight of The California Department of Social Services;
- The 22 counties should voluntarily “stop collecting and discharging all previously assessed SB 190 fees”; and,
- California Legislature, along with the Governor, should pass a new law that would “make all previously assessed SB 190 fees unenforceable and uncollectable and to vacate all court judgments, stipulated agreements, and other instruments imposing SB 190 fees.”
“We can all be proud of the progress that we have made, but it is clear we can do better,” SB 190 co-author Senator Holly J. Mitchell said in response to the study. “I look forward to continued work with impacted youth and their families until all fee collection is ended statewide.”
The full study can be accessed here.
This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano.