Last month, the Dane County Board of Supervisors discontinued the collection of fees and forgave any outstanding debts associated with a number of judiciary programs in the county.
Prior to this change, individuals and families were charged fees for their involvement in various programs both in the adult and juvenile judiciary systems in the county. Fees associated with youths in both the Shelter Home and Home Detention programs have been eliminated and any outstanding debts have been forgiven. This comes two years after a similar decision for youths being kept in the Juvenile Detention Center, thus eliminating all fees and debts associated with the Dane County Juvenile Court Program.
John Bauman is the Juvenile Court Administrator for Dane County. He says that the over $1 million of debt that these fees had accumulated from 2015 to 2019 was not worth the negative impact it was having on families.
“It’s something that, for the amount of money that was raised over the years, it was just not worth pursuing, to put families through that amount of stress, it just isn’t … It’s not a lot of money and it takes staff time at human services.”
The Shelter Home and Home Detention programs provide temporary housing to youths waiting for placement elsewhere or who are awaiting court adjudication. These programs charged families using a sliding fee scale that assessed up to $129 a night for Shelter Home and $25 a night for Home Detention depending on each families’ financial situation. The average stay in the Shelter Home program was about 10 days. These fees disproportionately affected families of color in the judiciary system as, according to Dane County’s 2019 Annual Juvenile Court Report, minority members represented 75 percent of kids in the Shelter Home program and 86 percent of kids in the Home Detention program.
Shawn Tessmann is the Director of the Dane County Department of Human Services. She says that these fees disproportionately affect families who also struggle with poverty. Tessmann also says that these fees only accounted for a small portion of the cost to run these programs — generating only $27,000 in revenue in 2019.
The Dane County Board also eliminated and forgave outstanding fines and debts associated with the First Offender and Deferred Prosecution Programs, two programs that provide adults with alternatives to incarceration. Individuals in the Deferred Prosecution Program had to pay a $60 monthly fee and individuals in the First Offender Program had to pay a $50 flat fee up until last month.
These amendments were led by the Public Protection and Judiciary Committees Fines and Fees Subcommittee established this past September. Dane County Supervisor Carousel Bayrd, who leads the Fines and Fees Subcommittee (and is also a WORT volunteer) says that the goal of the subcommittee is to find and eliminate fees in various county departments that exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic inequalities.
“In our criminal, civil and human service systems, disproportionately people of color are impacted. Disproportionately those are the communities that are being not just put through these services, but also now are being assessed fines and those fines and fees that, if you cannot afford it, have a huge lasting impact.”
Alex Booker is the communications specialist for Urban Triage, a Madison community nonprofit dedicated to the success of Black families. He says that hopefully the momentum of this change can lead to future changes as well.
“I just believe that we can use this momentum to chip away at other things that are holding children down.”
Currently, families are still charged for youths staying in the county’s foster system to help offset the costs of care. According to Human Services Director Tessmann, fees for the family of youths staying in foster homes and group homes in the county can vary from $270 to thousands of dollars per month.
Supervisor Bayrd says that the Fines and Fees Subcommittee will continue to go through the county’s criminal, civil and human services departments and advocate for changes on the state level as well.
Reporting for WORT news, I’m Ryan Wollersheim
Image courtesy: WORT News on Flickr