By the time Redwood City resident Daniel Casillas was released from a juvenile detention facility some four years ago at age 17, he had spent 2 1/2 years in some form of juvenile incarceration and two months in a traditional high school.
Initially incarcerated at 13 for vandalism, at the time of his release Casillas had been arrested more than 20 times for non-serious offenses and a series of probation violations. Whether it was arriving late to school or smoking marijuana, activities Casillas took to be parts of an average teenager’s life didn’t sink in as violations of his probation status. Instead, Casillas said incarceration — whether it was in a La Honda residential program for young men called Camp Glenwood or a detention facility at the county’s Youth Services Center in San Mateo — became the only consistency in his teenage years.
So when he was finally released from custody a few months before his 18th birthday, Casillas — now 21 and working as a supervisor at a bakery — found himself struggling to exist in a society he had been locked away from for so much of his life.
“I didn’t really have a childhood,” he said. “I was missing a lot of things that maybe the average teenager, the average 18-year-old would have acquired.”
In addition to adjusting to life with his family and finding a job, he found his parents were now faced with a debt worth thousands of dollars to pay for the costs of his incarceration. Though Casillas has not been incarcerated since he was 17, he said his parents have worked many hours years after his release to pay off $30 per day incarceration fees and others related to legal representation that had accumulated throughout Casillas’ time in the juvenile court system.
Even after paying $5,000 to $10,000 toward multiple accounts opened each time he was incarcerated, his parents still didn’t know how much they owed in total and when they would pay off all of them. Having emigrated from Mexico to provide a better life for their four children, Casillas’ parents, now U.S. citizens, are among thousands of other parents in the county Casillas is advocating for in urging the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors to write off outstanding juvenile court fees as officials implement Senate Bill 190, passed by state legislators and signed by the governor last year and aimed at limiting local agencies’ authority to collect fees against those involved with the juvenile delinquency system.
“Their number one reason for moving here was to provide their kids a better opportunity,” said Casillas. “I think they’ve kind of had to delay their hopes and work extra hard because of financial burden, because of my own adolescence.”
In compliance with SB 190, Chief Probation Officer John Keene said the county’s revenue services has stopped collecting any juvenile court fees as of Jan. 1, and has taken another step beyond what the legislation required to cease collection of any fees still owed to the county.
By introducing a write-off of juvenile court fees, Supervisor David Canepa is hoping that by formalizing practices already in place, more than 6,000 families like Casillas’ owing some $12.6 million to the county collectively will find relief. Canepa serves on the county’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission with Casillas, and knows Casillas’ family is not alone in struggling to pay the fees, which he said can be a barrier for families trying move forward with their lives after a youth is incarcerated.
“When it comes to criminal justice, when you do the crime you have to pay the time,” he said. “But when you pay the time, you shouldn’t be saddled as a juvenile with the debt for the rest of your life.”
Benefits of fees
Keene said it was important for county officials to affirm their support of the SB 190 implementation process, but acknowledged the fees generated some $350,000 to $450,000 in revenue that had previously been used toward programs benefiting youth as well as facility maintenance and improvement. Though some of the revenue also covered administrative costs in collecting the fees, Keene said the shift will cause him to rethink how much he requests for his department in the county’s budgeting process. Laura Williams, financial services manager for the county revenue services, confirmed in an email the collection cost hovered around $110,000 and said the county has been collecting juvenile detention and legal fees for some 25 years.
“I’m all for not charging people who deserve not to be charged. I do think there are families that can afford to pay,” said Keene, noting he has also worried about shifting the responsibility of the costs to taxpayers. “I think that’s a dangerous, slippery slope.”
Keene didn’t think his department’s ability to provide services would be impeded by the shift, noting the supportive level of engagement in his department’s work on the part of county officials. But he wasn’t sure how removing juvenile court fees across the state would play out in other counties with fewer means to address the revenue gap.
“I think we are inadvertently going to negatively impact some counties to provide comprehensive evidence-based services,” he said.
Effect of debt
As co-chair of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission, Redwood City resident Susan Swope said she began doing research on the effect of the debts on county families after residents and members of the U.C. Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic contacted commissioners with concerns about how the fees could disproportionately affect youth of minority and low-income backgrounds.
When Casillas joined the commission in January, Swope said his story compelled commissioners to examine how they could make Keene’s directive to county revenue services to stop collecting the fees official. From studying national statistics on youth incarceration, Swope said commissioners learned many families of youth held in custody in detention facilities are already struggling financially. Combined with the region’s rising cost of living affecting families like Casillas’, they knew the fees could be compounding challenges families already faced in reunifying with their child and taking steps in a positive direction.
“You wonder how many other families are really hurting because of this debt that’s hanging over their heads,” she said.
Swope noted one concern she had about the write-off supervisors are considering is whether families that have paid the debt might step forward to ask for a refund. Acknowledging the fees have been in place for many years, Canepa said he would not close the door to those who may step forward with those requests, but wanted to see where the resolution up for review at supervisors’ Tuesday meeting goes first.
For Casillas, the fees were just one of obstacles he had to overcome in his quest to turn his life around after years of weaving in and out of the criminal justice system. Because he saw many of his friends and adults around him end up behind bars, he said he didn’t grow up thinking about what his future held and struggled to imagine what a career might look like when he was finally released.
But finding a community of formerly incarcerated youth at the College of San Mateo, where he is taking classes in ethnic studies, showed Casillas he could be a scholar and use his previous experiences with incarceration to be a voice for those who don’t have the freedom he has.
He said working with commissioners to advocate for the write-off has given him hope that those affected by the juvenile criminal justice system can help shape policies that affect them, and has hopes of continuing to work on prison reform or becoming a teacher in the future.
“I think we’re the real experts,” he said. “We’ve been through the system and now we’re getting into some type of reform work or something around that to better help people understand that … this is the totality of the circumstances … it’s not just one thing, they all complement each other.”
Supervisors meet 9 a.m. Tuesday, June 19, at 400 County Center, Redwood City.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106