When a critical new law is passed, we celebrate. There’s that flood of relief, that flush of jubilation, punctuated by cheers, tears, and hugs all around. Those of us who have spent months, years, decades fighting for change – taking surveys, holding community meetings, meeting with decision-makers, staging rallies, collecting signatures and endorsement letters, and showing up at City Hall – we get to sit back for a moment and breathe. We get to bask in the glow of success with a renewed sense of faith in the system, with fresh hope for the future.
But only for a moment. Because those laws, hard won, that spell out new freedoms and more justice, still need to be put into practice.
Take a minute to think about what that means, just in California. When a state law is passed, think of the number of cities and counties, the vast archive of paper and digital documents that must be revised or recreated. Think of the websites and the thousands of links that must be updated. Think of the army of staff at all levels of government, the public departments, the law enforcers who need to be educated about the new laws and what they entail in order to enforce them.
This is no small task. And while this process of updating and educating rumbles forward, the people whom these laws are meant to free or to protect are at risk of slipping through the cracks.
SB 190: Wiping Juvenile Fees from the Books
Take the case of Senate Bill 190. It was one of those laws we celebrated with tears and hugs and deep sighs of relief. Signed in October of 2017 and taking effect on January 1, 2018, the law repeals a slew of fees — like registration, drug testing, legal representation, housing, ankle monitors, among other — for juveniles involved in the justice system. It was an enormous win for the most vulnerable among us: low-income youth of color. In counties like Fresno, this is huge. Fresno has the highest poverty rate in the state. Nearly two out of five children are living in communities of concentrated poverty. The majority of families living in poverty – and the young people in the justice system – are people of color.
According to a report published in 2017 by Berkeley Law, youth involved in Fresno County’s juvenile delinquency system spend an average of 37.5 days in detention. At a rate of $19 a day, this amounts to ~$700 – nearly equivalent to one month’s rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Fresno. And this doesn’t include the many other fees that could be charged: $50 for registration, $132 for an arraignment/detention hearing, $625 for a settlement conference, $550 per motion filed, $788 adjudication, $675 for a disposition, $11 per day for an ankle monitor…and the list goes on.
What happens when families can’t afford these fees? Collections agencies go after them, garnishing their wages and racking up debt. Imagine what this means for the cycle of poverty, the families that lose their homes and can’t afford to feed themselves or their children. Imagine the impact on the lives of these young people, who now have a record – a significant obstacle to finding work when they are released. Many spend decades paying off these debts.
The Campaign for Implementation
This explains the urgency Marco Sanchez, Fresno Boys & Men of Color (BMoC) youth leader, and Carlo DeCicco, adult ally at Fresno Barrios Unidos, felt about the law and its implementation in Fresno County. They have connections with young people and their families who have been burdened with debt, and understood on a deeply personal level what SB 190 means to these families when they first heard about it at a conference in December of 2017. They also know that the road to full implementation can be slow, and what – and who – can be lost in the process.
Marco and other BMoC youth began conducting research and setting up meetings with the County Board of Supervisors to learn more about the county’s efforts to implement the law, and to share stories of personal impact. They found that the county had stopped collecting juvenile fees in January in accordance with SB 190, but that fees were still listed on the website and on the Master Schedule of Fees.
Their research led them to a resolution passed by Solano County that modeled just the kind of implementation they wanted to see in Fresno. They passed it on to County Supervisor Brian Pacheco and the County Administrative Office, which was working with the Probation and Public Defender Departments to implement SB 190 and requested that the County update its website. All the while, they worked with partners at Fresno Barrios Unidos, Fresno Building Healthy Communities, Neighborhood Industries, and California Friday Night Live to inform the public about SB 190 and to ensure that not a single young person had slipped through the cracks. Radio Bilingue helped to get the word out by running the below Public Service Announcement, featuring BMoC leaders Marco Sanchez and Josh Cruzat between the months of January and February.
The moment of truth arrived on April 3rd, when members of the partnership appeared to give testimony at the Board of Supervisors meeting. The communal sigh of relief was almost audible when the Board voted to approve the recommendations of the Probation and Public Defender departments to wipe specified juvenile fees from the Master Schedule of Fees. Click on the video below and fast forward to 1:43:45 to view the testimonials.
Notching YLI’s 120th policy victory for youth, by youth, it was time to celebrate. But only for the moment…