A lot has changed in the year since Michael Rizo was released from a Stockton youth correctional facility after serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence.
“I give back to the community,” the 21-year-old Rizo said. “I do a lot of restorative justice work. I’m in school. I’m doing real good for myself.”
He’s also worked on repairing his relationship with his mother, part of the fallout from his lengthy and costly time in the juvenile justice system.
Growing up in West Sacramento, Rizo faced hardship early in life. His parents struggled with drug abuse. At the age of 3, his father left the family, and his mother was incarcerated. Over the course of his childhood, he went in and out of foster care. At school, he struggled to control his temper and often got into fights with his classmates.
“I started fighting because I wanted to be respected,” he said. “I wanted to prove myself.” He was suspended and expelled from multiple schools.
At 11, Rizo was first arrested for burglary. At the age of 13, he was sentenced to 180 days in juvenile detention for strong-arm robbery. It was during this time that he first learned about administrative fees.
“My mom told me, how am I going to pay for this?”
Rizo was completely unaware that she was being charged $40 per day for lodging and food while he was held in detention.
Ten years after his first arrest, he is now a passionate advocate for juvenile justice reform and has become a staunch supporter of a push to end juvenile administrative fees.
Earlier this year, California State Senators Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach) introduced Senate Bill 190 that would eliminate the practice across the state.
Most 58 counties in the state charge families some type of administrative fee when young people enter the juvenile justice system. For example, more than 84 percent of counties charge for juvenile detention, according to a report released this week by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Law.
Fees vary by county in California, but they include costs for probation supervision, legal counsel and drug testing, among others. In San Diego, average fees for a youth involved with the justice system — including costs for juvenile hall, public defender, electronic monitoring, probation supervision and drug testing — come to $2,150. By comparison, that total is $1,850 in Kern County and $1,372 in Orange County. Only a handful of counties do not charge the fees.
The Policy Advocacy Clinic’s Making Families Pay report found that these fees are harmful and costly for vulnerable families who are often living in economically fragile circumstances. These fees also disproportionately hurt families of color, may increase the likelihood of recidivism, and often times are unlawfully administered. At least 17 counties charge families for food and food preparation while a youth is held in county detention facilities, yet counties receive federal funding that already covers the cost of these meals, a direct violation of federal law.
Rizo has witnessed firsthand the damaging effects these fees can have on young people and their families.
Once he was released from juvenile hall at age 13, Rizo became involved in gangs, only to return to juvenile detention at age 15 and again at age 17 for fighting. Over the course of his involvement with the juvenile justice system, Rizo accumulated more than $25,000 in fees that his mother was responsible for paying.
“The money became such a weight on my family … It caused drama,” Rizo said. “My sister and I would fight. My mom and I would fight over the money. I felt like I was taking food away from my family’s table, as if I was the main cause of all of their stress.”
At one point, Michael felt so guilty that he ran away from home.
According to the Policy Advocacy Clinic, these fees weaken family ties and undermine family relationships, both of which are critical factors in helping justice-involved youth succeed.
“These relationships need to be the strongest at this point when kids are coming out of the system and they need the most support, and these fees are only making it more difficult to do that,” said Stephanie Campos-Bui, clinical teaching fellow and supervising attorney at the Policy Advocacy Clinic.
For Rizo’s mother, the financial burden became too much to bear. She was laid off from her job and forced to file for bankruptcy.
“These fees should only be charged after an assessment of the family’s ability to pay them, and a lot of counties don’t actually do that,” said Jude Pond, attorney and Thurgood Marshall civil rights fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, a co-sponsor of SB 190. According to the Policy Advocacy Clinic, over 40 percent of California counties do not have a standardized process to assess a family’s ability to pay and decisions are made on an ad hoc basis.
Stories from countless families like Rizo’s is what motivated the push for policy reform.
In 2016, the Policy Advocacy Clinic released the In High Pain, No Gain report about the impact of fees and costs on families involved with the juvenile justice system in Alameda County. It led to Alameda County placing a moratorium on collecting those fees last year. Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties also barred the practice last year, joining Los Angeles and San Francisco in the ranks of counties that do not collect the fees.
SB 190 has passed both the senate committees on public safety and human services and is now in the hands of the appropriations committee. The committee will decide later this month if it will be brought to the floor for a vote. For those who have worked tirelessly on this issue, this scene is all too familiar, as a similar bill was held up last year in the appropriations process.
The primary argument against the bill is the fiscal impact it will have on counties. In the analysis of the bill prepared by the appropriations committee, counties currently charging fees could potentially lose between $5 and $10 million in revenue each year.
However, the new report from the Policy Advocacy Clinic confirms that counties net very little revenue because most families have a hard time paying these fees. Additionally, the money that is collected is primarily used to fund the staffing and infrastructure to support the administration and collection of these fees.
In Orange County, four out of every five dollars collected from families goes toward paying for the collection of fees from other families.
When Rizo was released in May 2016, he struggled to find employment. He had four interviews in one week and was rejected from every job because of his prior history.
He was at his lowest point and thought: “I’m breaking down, because I’m thinking I’m going to be homeless. I don’t want to go back to jail. I don’t want to do nothing that is against the law, and I felt like that was my last option.”
At that exact moment, he received a call from Scott Budnick, founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). Budnick asked Rizo to get involved with the organization and he was later offered a job.
Rizo is now an intern for the Sacramento office of ARC, whose mission is to provide a support network for formerly incarcerated young men and women and advocate for fairer criminal justice policies. Rizo has gone to the state capital and traveled across the country, sharing the challenges he faced as a justice-involved youth and discussing his experience with the burdensome fees.
Last month, Sacramento County passed a resolution stating it will end the the use of juvenile administrative fees, effective July 1, 2017. This decision was made in part because of powerful stories like Rizo’s.
Rizo is now attending Sacramento City College, where he is studying political science.
“I want to run for office one day,” Rizo said. “I want to be mayor. I want to change the world.”
Brooke Pinnix is passionate about helping young people reach their full potential and has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than seven years. She is currently completing her Master’s degree in Nonprofit Leadership and Management at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this story for the Media for Policy Change course.