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Children's crimes will soon cost parents

A state law, effective July 1, forces parents to pay $1 to $50 daily toward their kids' incarceration.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- For parents with kids in trouble, things are about to get worse -- and more expensive.

Beginning July 1, a new state law will require parents to pay "care and maintenance" fees for children who commit crimes and are placed in home detention, short-term detention centers, or long-term residential treatment facilities.

The fees will range from a minimum of $1 per day in home detention to as much as $50 per day in long-term facilities.

Only parents of children who enter the juvenile justice system July 1 or after will be charged. If parents prove they are too poor to pay, the law allows judges to reduce or waive the costs.

"The parents will be encouraged, I think, by this fiscal connection to stay in touch with their kids more," Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary W.G. "Bill" Bankhead said Friday.

Current law already allows local juvenile justice officials to collect similar fees, but only a few counties do, including Pasco and Pinellas. Citrus, Hernando and Hillsborough do not collect the fees, state officials said.

Even where parents already are paying the fees, the new law will raise maximum rates and toughen collection practices.

In Pasco and Pinellas, a parent can be charged $15 for each day a child spends in either county's juvenile detention center. That will increase to a $20 daily fee.

The new law includes a new charge of up to $50 per day for children committed to residential facilities.

Juvenile offenders who can't be released to their parents' custody are kept for no longer than 30 days in detention centers while they wait for a judge to release them or assign them to a long-term stay in a residential facility. Others wait for long-term placement in home detention, similar to house arrest for adults.

For now, Pinellas and Pasco parents who don't pay the fees are simply billed repeatedly. But the stakes are going up. The law says juvenile justice officials "may" report parents to collection agencies, though it doesn't require them to do so.

"We have put a fair amount of effort into (collection)," said Tim Niermann, the juvenile justice manager for Pasco and Pinellas counties. "Now we're going to put a lot of effort into it."

Florida was among the first states to charge any custody fees, but it is no longer alone, said Mary Fairchild, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

At least 21 states exact some fee from parents for costs related to a child's tenure within the juvenile justice system, Fairchild said. Arizona, for example, charges parents up to $40 per month for their child's room and board. Illinois requires a maximum daily fee of $10.

In Florida, the full cost of keeping juvenile offenders in state custody ranges from $75 to $125 per day, depending on the facility. The new parent fees of $1 to $50 per day will help pay for the food, clothing, housing and supervision portions of that cost.

State lawmakers reduced the Department of Juvenile Justice budget this year by $500,000, anticipating that revenue from the new fees would make up the shortfall, Bankhead said. Yet local experiences suggest the new system might not be so lucrative.

For the first six months of 1999, 1,679 parents or guardians in Pinellas and Pasco were billed $470,630 in detention center fees, Niermann said. He didn't know how much of those fees were collected.

Yet for 12 previous months -- July 1998 to June 1999 -- local officials collected only about $40,000.

Most children who enter juvenile courts can't afford attorneys, much less the new fees, juvenile court judges say. In three years in juvenile court, Pinellas Circuit Judge Walt Logan found "maybe a half dozen" parents who could afford the $15 daily detention center fee.

"(The new fees) may sound good, but we're not going to put (parents) in debtors' prison," said Logan, who moved to the family law division in January. "If the family has resources, I'd rather see the victims get restitution."

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