In dozens of one-on-one meetings every week, a lawyer retained by the city of Philadelphia summons parents whose children have just been jailed, pulls out his calculator and hands them more bad news: a bill for their kids’ incarceration.
Even if a child is later proved innocent, the parents still must pay a nightly rate for the detention. Bills run up to $1,000 a month, and many of the parents of Philadelphia’s roughly 730 detained children are so poor they can afford monthly installments of only $5.
The lawyer, Steven Kaplan — who according to his city contract is paid up to $316,000 a year in salary and bonuses, more than any city employee, including the mayor — is one agent of a deeply entrenched social policy that took root across the country in the 1970s and ’80s. The guiding principle was simple: States, counties and cities believed that parents were shedding responsibility for their delinquent children and expecting the government to pick up the tab.
If parents shared the financial cost of incarceration, this thinking went, they would be more involved in keeping their children out of trouble.
“I mean, do we think the taxpayers should be supporting these bad kids?” Kaplan said in an interview.
Today, mothers and fathers are billed for their children’s incarceration — in jails, detention centers, court-ordered treatment facilities, training schools or disciplinary camps — by 19 state juvenile-justice agencies, while in at least 28 other states, individual counties can legally do the same, a survey by the Marshall Project shows.
Groups of law students, juvenile defense lawyers and others have begun to challenge this payment system, arguing that it is akin to taxing parents for their child’s loss of liberty — and punishing them with debt. In Philadelphia, the City Council is meeting Friday to consider abolishing the practice. In California — which incarcerates more children than any other state, at a typical cost to parents of $30 a night — activists have succeeded in getting the practice banned in three counties. Two senators have introduced a bill to ban it statewide.
“Aside from all the emotional stuff — holding my son together, holding myself together — now they’re going to say, ‘By the way, you owe us cash for this?’ ” said Tamisha Walker, one of the mothers who fought, successfully, for a moratorium in California’s Contra Costa County.
Because these parents are so often from poor communities, even the most aggressive efforts to bill them seldom bring in meaningful revenue. Philadelphia netted $551,261 from parents of delinquent children in fiscal 2016, a small fraction of the $81,148,521 the city spent on all delinquent placements, according to city records.
A similar pattern emerges in financial data gathered from all 50 states — significant operating budgets for collections officers and mailing out invoices but low amounts of money actually collected from the families.
Many juvenile-corrections administrators say the payment system is a way of keeping parents engaged with their children, whose food, clothing and medical expenses they would be paying for anyway.
“It increases buy-in. It keeps the parents’ skin in the game,” said James Bueche, who heads Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice, adding that in a state with severe budget problems, his department needs all the funding it can get.
Bueche and others also said the agencies are constrained by state laws, frequently outdated, that hold parents financially responsible for their children’s transgressions, ranging from truancy and curfew violations to shoplifting to murder.
“It was a very different time, when too many parents frequently wanted to essentially ‘dump’ their adolescent children on juvenile courts when they found them unruly, ungovernable, uncontrollable,” Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, said of the era decades ago when the laws were implemented.
“This was put into the statute so courts could say . . . ‘Okay, but you will have to pay the costs of detention,’ ” O’Neal said. “The experience was then parents would suddenly decide, maybe they could manage their children after all rather than pay.”
Until recently, that logic had gone mostly unexamined, in part because juvenile defenders advocate for children, not parents, whose separate problems often go overlooked when a child is accused of a crime.
But family advocates have increasingly taken the position that detention payments introduce new obstacles for young people already struggling to succeed — and run counter to the juvenile-justice system’s century-old mission to improve children’s outcomes by helping them learn from their mistakes.
“Here’s a family that needs support, and what we’re going to do instead is put a whole lot of economic pressure on them?” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of Juvenile Law Center, a national advocacy group based in Philadelphia. “Parents don’t choose for their kids to go to jail. They just don’t.”
How juvenile-justice agencies go about charging mothers and fathers for their children’s incarceration varies widely by state, but the basics are the same: a monthly bill, frequently in the low hundreds of dollars, that covers some but not all of the actual costs of the child’s imprisonment.
Florida’s brochure on its “Cost of Care” program depicts the intertwined hands of an adult and a child, with a caption reading: “A joint effort between the parents and the State improves the quality of life for our children. Together we can reduce juvenile crime.”
To calculate the amounts owed, at least a dozen states make use of an existing metric: standard child-support guidelines.
Other states operate a “parental reimbursement unit” that charges the parents a flat sum. The ones that detain youths in privately operated facilities tend to charge the highest rates.
When parents fail to pay on time, the state can send collection agencies after them, tack on interest, garnish 50 percent of their wages, seize their bank accounts, intercept their tax refunds, suspend their driver’s licenses or charge them with contempt of court. Virginia, for instance, uses several of those methods to try to collect from parents, state officials and parents told the Marshall Project.
An ability-to-pay process, by which parents can provide pay stubs and documentation of their expenses to get the charges lowered, is usually offered. But it often entails navigating a maze of paperwork and rarely takes place before a judge or neutral third party. In many cases, it is no more than a correspondence or meeting between the parent and a representative of the state agency, like Kaplan.
Not all states take action to be reimbursed. Maryland seeks child support from parents only in certain circumstances, such as to defray costs from placement in a for-profit medical facility. The District does not collect any fees.
Anders Jacobson, director of the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections, which does not bill parents, said that any well-functioning juvenile-justice system depends on youths returning home to a stable environment. Thrusting parents into debt, he said, undercuts their ability to keep the lights on and the refrigerator stocked. Such households already are dealing with additional costs from the juvenile’s crime, parents point out, including steep rates for phone calls, gas for long-distance visits, and thousands of dollars in restitution and public-defender fees.
As significantly, parents and advocates say, the goal of incarceration is not to address problems in the family the way a child-support order can do. They argue that detention facilities should exist for the larger societal purpose of public safety and getting young offenders back on the right track, for which all taxpayers ought to be responsible.
“I pay taxes every single year — isn’t that supposed to be what pays for the justice system?” said Alison Devine, the parent of a formerly delinquent child in Philadelphia.
When Mariana Cuevas’s son was released from a California jail, after being locked up in a juvenile hall for more than 300 days for a homicide he did not commit, the boy’s public defender, Jeffrey Landau, thought his work was done. The case had been dismissed; his client was free.
But at a celebratory dinner afterward, Cuevas, a Bay Area home cleaner, pulled out a plastic bag full of bills and showed Landau that the state had tried to collect nearly $10,000 for her child’s imprisonment. She had been able to pay back only about $50 a month.
“Sure, your son was stolen from you for a year,” said Landau, stunned, “but here’s what it cost.”
Animated by stories such as Cuevas’s, juvenile defenders at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley teamed up with students at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law to begin gathering county-level data to determine whether the payment requirement, so long ignored, was cost-effective.
It hardly was, they found. In fiscal 2014-2015, Alameda County, which contains Oakland, spent $250,938 collecting $419,830 from parents. An internal county report called that “little financial gain.” By last March, in the wake of the group’s findings, county officials had placed a moratorium on the practice. They later banned it outright, forgiving the debt of almost 3,000 families.
“From a macro level we weren’t even aware this existed, but it hurt so many vulnerable people,” said Richard Valle, a member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. “The parents deserve the credit — they came to the podium and spoke up.” Valle also said there has been zero loss of services for children in juvenile hall, despite the lost revenue.
Then, in October, the Berkeley-based campaign won another moratorium in neighboring Contra Costa County, and later Cuevas’s debt was frozen. Officials there are considering reparations for some of the parents who had already paid the detention fees.
In August, Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit weighed in forcefully on the side of Maria Rivera, a parent who sold her house and went bankrupt to pay Orange County more than $9,500 for her son’s incarceration.
“Not only does such a policy unfairly conscript the poorest members of society to bear the costs of public institutions, operating ‘as a regressive tax,’ ” Reinhardt wrote, “but it takes advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable, essentially imposing ‘a tax upon distress.’ ”
In Philadelphia last year, juvenile defenders learned about the city’s collection practices from the parents of clients. They alerted a group of law students at Temple University, who then brought the issue to the attention of aides in the office of Mayor Jim Kenney (D).
Heather Keafer, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, said that the students made a “compelling argument” and that the department has asked the state of Pennsylvania for a legal review as to whether abandoning the practice would be allowable under existing state and federal regulations. “This has just been the way it works for so long that it has kind of proceeded as a matter of course,” Keafer said.
Kathaleen Gillis, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services, said the matter is still under review, in part because a decision must be made not just for Philadelphia but for all counties, and practices vary widely.
Since the state’s decision may take months, Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson called for Friday’s hearing. “This whole thing reminded me of Ferguson,” said Johnson, drawing a straight line between the parental-billing practices and the debate around allegedly predatory fines and fees in the larger criminal-justice system — a controversial issue in Ferguson, Mo., even before the killing of an unarmed African American teen by a white officer there in 2014 brought tensions between police and the community to a head.
Steve Kaplan, who is 62 and has lived in Philadelphia for his entire life, calls himself the “most experienced child-support attorney in America.” He began collecting from the mothers and fathers of incarcerated children in 1998, when a friend of his — then-Philadelphia mayor and future Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell (D) — instructed him to do so. Rendell did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the practice.
Kaplan is likely to be replaced by a collection agency when his contract expires March 31, Keafer said via email Thursday. The lawyer, who currently gets bonuses of up to $160,000 based on the amounts he can collect from the parents, would not comment late Thursday.
One of those parents was Jonelle Mills, a single mother and janitor whose teenage daughter has been in and out of juvenile facilities for over two years. Mills said Kaplan billed her nearly $3,000 for those stays and now the city is garnishing her paycheck. She also said her child returned home “institutionalized” and physically aggressive.
“What did I just pay for exactly?” she said. “It clearly didn’t buy any kind of rehabilitation.”
To Kaplan, that was still the wrong question. For 18 years, he said in the earlier interview, parents are obligated to pay for whatever housing their children are in — even if it’s a jail.
“Child support is child support is child support,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter if the kid lives with Mom, Dad, Aunt Betsy, or with me — Uncle Steve — in detention.”
This investigation was written for the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.