Rising County Probation Fees a Challenge for Families

Chanel Wilson of Families for Books Not BarsBy Alicia Rangel and Owen Li We all know how expensive it is to live in the Bay Area. The price of basic necessities like housing and food are some of the highest in the nation. Meet Chanel Wilson, a single mother and a leader of Books Not Bars. Chanel works a full time job assisting the elderly, plus a second job on the weekend. She’s also a full-time mom raising three children. On top of that, she takes classes, she says, to set a good example for her children. Single mothers like Chanel Wilson often find themselves having to make tough budget decisions in order to support their families. Chanel takes home $1000 a month. On her income, she does what she can to make ends meet, but it is not uncommon that she has to forego heat or electricity in order to pay for rent and food. Last year, Chanel’s son got into a little trouble. He spent a month in Alameda County’s Juvenile Hall and was put on probation. After the judge threatened to send her son to San Quentin if he didn’t complete his probation requirements (likely a “scared straight” tactic) Chanel frantically tried to contact his probation officer but never got a return call. When her son showed up for court-mandated community work, he was told his probation officer did not put him on the list and got turned away. At the end of the ordeal, Chanel was billed $700 for “probation services.” Given that Chanel barely makes that amount in a month, she could not afford the bill and didn’t pay it. So the County started garnishing her wages. If this happened two years ago, Chanel would only be charged a fraction of what she owes. Why? Because in 2010 Alameda County decided to raise probation fees by over 250 percent. For housing a young person at Juvenile Hall the fees were raised from $10.11 to $25.29 per day. This increases the fees from $304 a month to $759 a month. For adults, fees were raised from $30 to $90 per day. This triples fees from $900 to $2,700 a month. And that’s just the beginning. There are fees for mandatory drug tests, GPS monitoring bracelets, court fees – the list goes on.To add insult to injury, the county recently installed meters at Juvenile Hall so that now you must pay for parking if you need to go to court or visit your child while they’re locked up. We’ve all heard it before. Our government is out of money. California counties are doing what they can to creatively collect revenue – increasing fines, handing out extra traffic tickets, and increasing fees for services. This is especially challenging for mothers like Chanel who work hard but struggle to make ends meet. Charging people fees they cannot afford puts a financial burden on economically vulnerable families. It precipitates financial and social default as families can't make their rent or pay for transport to work. Despite all the obstacles she must constantly overcome, Chanel takes time off work to lead Books Not Bars campaigns. She made her voice heard at Juvenile Hall by advocating for the appointment of David Muhammad as the new probation chief with the hope that he will reduce reliance on incarceration, increase alternative programs and improve the treatment of youth. Alternatives to incarceration are not only more effective - they are cheaper. As part of the Families for Books Not Bars network, Chanel is working to change California’s priorities. Working families of color can be strong if given the opportunity. But our communities are weakened when our local or state government makes us pay for the criminal system’s addiction to incarceration. Books, not bars! Books Not Bars, a campaign of the Ella Baker Center, along with 7 organizations across the country, is creating a national report to influence elected officials and decision-makers to make changes to the justice system. Our goal is to increase families' voice and power in discussions about the justice system in order to reduce incarceration and promote racial justice. We will be holding two focus groups to discuss people's experiences dealing with the juvenile justice system and suggestions for improvement and inform the report. We are looking for family members of young people who've been involved in any part of the juvenile justice system in Alameda County - including courts, juvenile halls, boot camps, and youth prisons. Each member of the focus groups will receive a $40 reimbursement for their participation. Lunch will be provided.  Our second Focus Group will be Saturday April 30, 2011, 11:00AM - 2:00PM. For more details and to participate, you must communicate with Owen Li.  Please contact him at (510) 285-8243 or owen(at)ellabakercenter.org