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.