The city of Philadelphia announced Friday that it will stop billing parents for the cost of their children’s incarceration, just hours after a front-page Marshall Project story in The Washington Post highlighted the practice in the city and across the nation.
Heather Keafer, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, said the decision to stop charging parents will go into effect immediately. The agency already said late Thursday it plans to end its contract with Steve Kaplan, a private attorney who since 1998 has been collecting from parents on behalf of Philadelphia — earning up to $316,000 a year in salary and bonuses, more than any city employee. His contract will end March 31.
“Our priority is to reunify families safely and quickly, and this decision is a great move forward toward that goal,” DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said in a statement.
Philadelphia announced its decision just before a City Council hearing on the detention fees. The Council still held the hearing, where speakers focused on how quickly and widely the change can be implemented. One parent said her paycheck was garnished as recently as this week.
Billing parents for incarcerating their children goes far beyond Philadelphia and is rooted in decades-old social policy based on the belief that families were shedding responsibility for delinquent children and expecting the government to pick up the tab.
Nineteen states and county-level juvenile justice systems in 28 other states now charge parents for jailing juveniles, often using a child-support model to determine the cost and collect debt, the story found. But there are some signs of change: A county-by-county effort to end the collections is also underway in California, where a bill to abolish the practice outright has been introduced in the state legislature.
Until the shift in Philadelphia, parents of roughly 730 detained children there were being billed up to $1,000 a month to pay for their children’s stints in juvenile detention, even though many are so poor they could afford monthly installments of only $5. The city’s efforts netted just $551,261 in fiscal 2016, far short of the more than $80 million it spent on all delinquent placements.
Keafer said Friday the city will also move to stop collecting debt from any parents who currently owe money.
Last year, a group led by the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, a nonprofit legal organization that assists juveniles in the justice system, and the Justice Lab at Temple Law School’s Sheller Center brought the issue to the attention of Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney. DHS began rethinking its policy, including seeking guidance from the state.
Advocates who spent close to a year pushing for the change in Philadelphia said they were heartened by the news but planned to watch its rollout closely. “We’re hoping they take their commitment seriously and aren’t just doing this because of the national attention happening today,” said Lauren Fine, the co-founder and co-director of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project.
“Philly’s not the only place doing this, clearly, and I think this should be an opportunity for other places around the country to look at this practice,” said Colleen Shanahan, a Temple law professor.
The city made its final determination after reviewing the state’s prepared comments for Friday’s hearing, Keafer said.
A decision still must be made for Pennsylvania’s other counties, and Philadelphia will continue to bill parents for the costs of foster care and “dependency” placements, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported [philly.com], using a collections agency called Revenue Collection Bureau Inc.
Keafer also distanced the agency from Kaplan, the lawyer who has been collecting money from parents for the city for decades. She said Kaplan’s comments in the story — which included, “I mean, do we think the taxpayers should be supporting these bad kids?” — did not reflect the city’s current thinking.
Reached for comment Friday, Kaplan said, “I support the city and its decisions.”
This story was written for the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.