DeShawn Morris was 17 years old when he was arrested for armed robbery on July 20, 2010.* According to his mother, Zoe Mathews, Morris was excited about entering a teacher training program the next day in San Leandro, California. He had recently graduated from high school and was a mentor at Youth Radio, a non-profit, media-training organization for young adults (a program where this author also works). Out with two of his friends—who were, like him, young black men—Morris was standing near a bus stop in Oakland when a police officer approached and shined his car’s headlights on the group.
From another police car, a victim who had been robbed at gunpoint a few blocks away identified Morris as the suspect. In what Mathews says was a case of racial profiling and mistaken identity, Morris was charged with the crime. He served 56 days in juvenile hall and 152 days in a boot camp in the Mendocino National Forest called the Fouts Springs Youth Facility.
Morris was shot and killed at a park in Vallejo in June 2012. Nearly two years after her son’s death, Mathews can’t put his run-ins with the juvenile justice system behind her, and it’s not just because she disputes the robbery charge.
It’s the money.
In 57 of 58 counties in California, the state with the highest population of incarcerated youth in the country, young people don’t just pay for their crimes with their incarceration—they get billed. Juvenile offenders are charged a percentage of the counties’ costs for incarcerating them and, later, for a partial cost of probation services. In Solano County, where DeShawn Morris served time, these charges are for “Care, Support, and Maintenance”—services that include staffing, clothing, and health care.
In Alameda County, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, the practice of charging juvenile offenders for processing and probation is less than five years old. For suspects older than 16, the meter starts running even before indictment, with a $250 charge for the investigation that’s initiated after an arrest. For a juvenile who’s been detained for the average time in Alameda County—23 days—the total bill will be close to $2,000.
“We’re trying to get blood from a stone in many situations,” said Beth Colgan, a Thomas C. Grey Fellow at Stanford Law School who’s written about the history of fees charged by the criminal justice system, which she says incur as much as 12 percent interest in some states. “These fees can be detrimental to people’s ability to get back on their feet. One of the strongest arguments against these fees is that they do perpetuate inequality and poverty in a way that might make many people uncomfortable.”
Terry Wiley, the senior deputy district attorney for Alameda County, has a different perspective: “Don’t be committing crimes, and you won’t owe any money.” This is one matter-of-fact take, but it doesn't help much once an offender is already caught up in the justice system.
For one thing, offenders, along with other taxpayers, are stuck paying for any overcharging produced by the system’s inefficiencies. In an interview for the documentary film A Matter of Respect, Wiley himself says that though local police departments may do a good job investigating a case, “what they bring over in terms of police reports and their version of events they’ve got from witnesses is not always what really happened.” In Alameda County, the fee for investigations, accurate or not, is charged even if a suspect is exonerated. And if certain other fees, like court-ordered victim restitution, aren’t paid, judges have the discretion to reincarcerate offenders.*
In California, the bills for juvenile offenders go to parents like Zoe Mathews. According to a 2011 report from the National Center for Juvenile Justice, 29 states require courts to order payment from parents. The financial responsibility begins from the moment an arrest happens. In some cases, parents can negotiate certain fees if they can’t pay, but rules vary around the country. When the bills aren’t paid, officials can involve collections agencies, deduct from parents’ wages, or take their tax refunds.
Mathews is on the hook for more than $7,500 in fees related to her son’s incarceration for the robbery charge and a previous misdemeanor. That includes 56 days in juvenile hall at $30 per day, for a total of $1,680. Probation supervision racked up an $1,800 bill. And Mathews, who’s been exceptionally persistent in chasing down answers from the juvenile justice system, isn’t prepared to pay for certain bills that she views as unfair.
In a lengthy email 2012 chain between Mathews and Jeff Liddicoat, who was then a senior staff analyst with Solano County’s Probation Department, Mathews asks for the math behind some of the line items on her bills. Liddicoat replies that he can’t comment on individual cases. But he does outline the rationale behind the bills: “To be financially prudent to the county taxpayers and voters,” he writes, “the County must collect fees for its services...to reimburse the County for services that are not provided to the general public as a whole.”
That is, taxpayers in Solano County—which has the lowest per capita income in the San Francisco Bay Area—are not expected to cover the entire cost of detaining minors. In 2012, however, these fees were less than one percent of the Probation Department’s $28.5 million dollars in total revenue. And according to Stanford’s Beth Colgan, counties often spend a lot more money trying to collect the fees than they recoup. But, “as counties get crunched economically,” she told me, “this has been the response.” Between 2009 and 2013, at least eight states introduced legislation dealing with parental payment obligations; in 2011 alone, Utah, Idaho, and Texas all proposed such laws, the National Center for Juvenile Justice reports.
Juvenile-justice advocates tend to agree that most people aren't very well informed about the workings of the justice system and its costs unless they experience them directly. “When that happens,” National Center for Juvenile Justice Director Melissa Sickmund wrote in an email, “they often go through the process not understanding what is happening to them or their children. Advocates are pushing for use of more ‘common language’ in court. There is research that shows that even if justice decision-making goes against someone, if they have been treated fairly ... they are more likely to comply.”
Zoe Mathews is a working single mother of three. She says she can’t afford the payment arrangement determined by Solano County for fees related to her deceased child’s time in detention and on probation. She’s tried to negotiate with the county to waive the fees, she says, but the county would only lower the monthly payment.
The phone calls from county bill collections agency have stopped, but Mathews says she’s now receiving letters threatening to garnish her wages if she doesn’t pay. Although she says she understands why the county aims to recoup some of its costs, Mathews calls the fees to juvenile offenders “double-dipping.” They’re unfair, in her view, once an offender has served time.
“That’s supposed to rehabilitate you, and you’re paying your debt back to society,” she says, “so then they’re going to charge you an additional per night stay? As if you elected to do that, as if there were some options?”
She pauses, and then says, “No, I don’t think that’s right at all.”
* This post original stated that DeShawn Morris was 18 at the time of his arrest. He was 17. It also stated that judges in Alameda County have the right to reincarcerate offenders for not paying investigation fees. While this is true in other counties across the country, in Alameda County, judges can only reincarcerate offenders for failing to pay court-ordered victim restitution. We regret these errors.
This story is part of a special report on the U.S. juvenile justice system produced by Youth Radio. Other installments will be broadcast on the radio program "Marketplace."