he good folks at The Marshall Project—in collaboration with The Washington Post—would like you to know about an ongoing atrocity that is not going to get any better now that we have a law and order kulak named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III running the Department of Justice, and now that the golden bipartisan dream of Criminal Justice Reform has dissipated over the banks of the Potomac.
It seems that, in parts of this country, for almost four decades now, if your kid gets busted, you have to foot the bill. Is this a great country or what?
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.
You will be shocked, I know, to discover that this burden falls most heavily on poorer families, on people of color, or both.
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.
So much of what was going to be reformed when we all were on board with Criminal Justice Reform resulted from the powerful confluence that occurred when the “war” on drugs of the 1980s combined with the energy of the anti-tax revolution in the late 1970s. Somebody had to pay for all the people who were being swept up in the former, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be the drum-beaters for the latter, who didn’t believe that they should have to pay for schools and libraries, let alone for the care and feeding of criminals. Thus did the profit motive come creeping into criminal justice, with all the terrible consequences of it.
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.
The hell of it all is, for all my cultivated cynicism—Bernie Kerik? Really?—criminal justice reform really had a chance. It was something that not only could bring Republicans and Democrats together, and actually was beginning to do so, but also could reconcile the various factions within the two parties. All of these different groups would get behind the program for their own reasons, but they at least would be pushing a good idea in the right direction.
But this has gone a’glimmering because JeffBo is the new top cop, and we’re all going to be back living with Buford T. Justice again. And the least of us will pay the highest bills.