California County Reimburses Parents for Jail Costs

A package of criminal justice reform bills signed last year included ending parental liability for costs of incarcerating their minor children

By Christopher Zoukis

Probation officials in Contra Costa County will have a lot more on their plate in the new year after political leaders in the East Bay California jurisdiction decided they would provide refunds to families who, going back to 2010, were incorrectly billed for the county’s costs in incarcerating their children.

Until last year, California law allowed parents of jailed juveniles to be billed for the costs to counties of incarcerating their offspring. According to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that has researched and written about the practice, the state juvenile systems in at least 19 states recoup costs by billing inmates’ parents or guardians. In at least 28 other states, including California, the bill comes from a county agency, rather than from the state.

The apparent philosophy for allowing parents to be billed for the cost of incarcerating their children was a belief among lawmakers that imposing that liability would encourage parents to supervise their children more carefully. But growing opposition to the practice argues that it amounts to punishing parents with four or five-digit debt at a time they are likely to need to devote their full resources to their children’s defense.

The situation changed in California on Oct. 11 last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of criminal justice reform bills. One of those measures (SB 190), which ended parental liability for costs of incarcerating their minor children, such as transportation to a juvenile facility, food, shelter, care and other support — including alcohol or drug education — and court-ordered legal services, probation, electronic monitoring or home supervision services.

Until the new law’s enactment, counties in California had generally billed parents about $30 per night of incarceration for basic services, with additional costs if public defender, drug testing or probation services were ordered by a juvenile court. Even while California had permitted parents to be billed, they were not supposed to have to pay if their child was eventually found not to be guilty of the charged offense. But counties often ignored that provision of the law.

Contra Costa County was more than a little bit ahead of the curve. It stopped billing parents even before the new state law was passed. Its probation department, which has been going through its back records for several months, is now trying to locate and notify parents in some 3,000 cases it believes are due refunds for payments made since 2010. The county estimates it will reimburse about $316,000 in total.

The county is also setting up a process to enable parents to file claims if they believe they were unfairly charged in years before 2010, or that the billing was unfair or unlawful in some other way, even if their child was not found to be not guilty – for example, if billing did not, as legally required, allow them to show their income was so low that they should not have been billed. The county is also taking the added step of erasing over $8.5 million in outstanding debt from about 11,000 other cases.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.