Debt-Free Justice

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Clearinghouse Community – By Stephanie Campos-Bui

Michael Rizo was 11 when he was first arrested. He cycled in and out of foster care, and when he was 13, he was arrested for burglary and detained in juvenile hall. The county charged his mother $40 every day he was in the hall. By the time Rizo turned 18, she owed the county over $25,000 in fees.

These bills only made it harder for Rizo and his family to get by. His mother had a steady job, but when she was laid off, she was forced to file for bankruptcy. The money was such a weight on Rizo’s family. Each time his mother received a bill in the mail, he said, “I felt like I was taking food away from my family’s table.”

When he was finally released from the system in 2016—where he had racked up an additional $10,000 in fees assessed to him after he turned 18—Rizo struggled to find a job. After getting turned down for a fourth job in a single week, he hit a low. Rizo was out of money and was about to be homeless when he landed an internship with the Sacramento chapter of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He remains closely connected to this work while also working full-time for a hotel chain in downtown Sacramento (see fig. 1).

Stories such as Rizo’s drove a multiyear effort by legislative allies, community organizations, legal aid providers, and advocacy groups to make California the first state in the country to end the practice of charging harmful and regressive fees to families of youth in the juvenile justice system.

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