Nevada could do more when it comes to child welfare and juvenile justice, whether providing resources that stop youth from entering the system altogether, or halting the school-to-prison pipeline.
For a start, the Children’s Advocacy Alliance is pushing for a bill that would eliminate fees paid by youths and their families who get caught up in the juvenile justice system.
Dagen Downard, a student with the UC Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, which has been researching juvenile justice fees across the country, said when a youth enters the system, their families are hit with a variety of unexpected costs.
“Fees can be cost of care, but it really can fall under a big umbrella,” he said.
Families might have to pay for drug testing or urine analyses, monitoring devices or even some transportation and food costs. In some places, Downard said, families have even had to pay for appointed public defenders, despite the fact they are supposed to be free.
Downard added people often confuse fees, which are intended for jurisdictions to recoup some of the costs, with fines, which are associated with the punishment.
If a youth received a traffic infraction, for example, they would have a fine as a punishment associated with that ticket. A youth could also be fined in order to pay restitution to a victim.
Legislation advocated by the Alliance in Nevada would only waive fees, not eliminate fines associated with the infraction.
According to the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, the state Division of Child & Family Services collected less than $8,000, the Clark County Department of Juvenile Justice Services collected less than $25,000 and Lyon County collected less than $2,000 from families in fiscal year 2018 — judges have the discretion not to collect fees if they find them to be financially burdensome on families.
But small as those numbers may sound, the Alliance notes that in many cases, fees present a financial hardship to low-income families who have to pay them.
Black and brown youth are disproportionately represented in Nevada’s juvenile justice system. In 2017, the Alliance notes, African-American youth were “three times more likely than white youth to be arrested and placed in county detention and six times more likely to be placed in state confinement” — statistics consistent with national trends. Communities of color, along with low-income families, are hit hardest by the fees.
Downard said fees have additional consequences on top of leading to financial issues such as negative credit scores from payment failures or even a suspended driver’s license — all things that could plunge families deeper into poverty and exacerbate further involvement with the justice system.
“These fees undermines a youth’s rehabilitation process and increases recidivism rates,” Downard added.
Assemblyman Steve Yeager said language for the bill, which is being sponsored by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, is still being drafted. The deadline for introduction of committee bills is March 25.
“Antiquated” child welfare data system
As a former corrections officer who worked with adult offenders, Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno believes that some of the adults she worked with wouldn’t have been incarcerated if there had been better investments in juvenile justice and child welfare systems.
But before the state can embark on where it wants to go, Monroe-Moreno said it needs to know what it does — and doesn’t do — well when it comes to its most vulnerable children. Assembly Bill 111 could help.
The legislation, which is expected to have its first hearing Tuesday, would allocate $250,000 to fund a study of Nevada’s child welfare system. The bill comes from recommendations drawn from the interim Legislative Committee on Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice.
“As a committee, we decided we need to conduct a study to see what we are doing well and what is not working,” Monroe-Moreno said. “We have to invest in this expense to find out what we’re doing right and what we could be doing better. We are only asking for $250,000. Compared to the overall state budget, that’s not huge. Yet, it can have a large impact on our state and children. It’s time to spend the money on what’s best for our kids.”
During 2018, lawmakers heard from state agencies, nonprofits and those impacted by the juvenile justice and child welfare systems to learn about funding resources, or lack thereof, duplication of resources and services, miscommunication issues among providers, and Nevada’s outdated databases.
The study, which would be conducted in the interim session and presented to the 81st Legislative Session in 2021, would review all sources of funding, such as federal grants, to see what is sufficient versus inefficient, and to see how funding streams work.
The study would also determine the cost and benefit of replacing Unified Nevada Information Technology for Youth System, the statewide automated child welfare database. “It came up (in the interim committee) time and time again that the UNITY system is antiquated,” Monroe-Moreno said.
With a study, she said, “when we go before (the Legislature) to ask for what we need money for, we have the data to show why.”
When it comes to improving the juvenile justice system, there are other models across the country, Monroe-Moreno said, that Nevada could model or replicate.
“We need to know what we’re doing (in Nevada) before we adopt other programs,” she said. “I think this is another tool in the toolbox that aids us in minimizing the school-to-prison pipeline.”