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Los Angeles will wipe out nearly $90 million worth of debt incurred by juvenile offenders 

Los Angeles County Women's jail in Lynwood, California.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Los Angeles County Women's jail in Lynwood, California.

Going to juvie can cost you more than just your freedom. Many states charge parents of children involved in the justice system fines and fees associated with their detention. For instance, the Los Angeles Times reports that before 2009, families in Los Angeles County were charged $23.63 a day for a dependent in a juvenile detention center and $11.94 a day for a dependent in a probation camp.

States have slowly begun to move away from this practice. Los Angeles banned these charges in 2009, but has continued to collect debts incurred before the ban went into effect. That is, until now.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors approved a motion that will end this practice in Los Angeles County, effectively erasing nearly $90 million worth of debt held by juvenile offenders, their parents and their guardians across 52,000 accounts.

The motion, authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn, is aimed at helping Californians who have been involved in the juvenile justice system get back on their feet.

"Collecting fees for juvenile detention undermines youth rehabilitation and public safety," said Solis in a statement. "It also unnecessarily increases the financial insecurity of vulnerable families. As part of a larger, transformative reexamination of how we serve our justice-involved residents, including our re-entry population, LA County is reexamining our approach to juvenile justice. Today's action helps families and our youth in detention while setting up future generations for success rather than incarceration."

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, research links juvenile detention fees with increased recidivism. Research from the Vera Institute of Justice suggests that the families most impacted by these fees are disproportionately poor and black.

According to Jessica Feierman, Associate Director at Juvenile Law Center, the move sets a precedent for other states.

"California has already led the way nationally by passing comprehensive legislation to eliminate harmful juvenile justice fines and fees. Yesterday's decision by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to free tens of thousands of families from any remaining court debt sets a crucial example for the rest of the country," she tells CNBC Make It. "Court fines and fees cause overwhelming economic and emotional stress to families and undermine the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system."

Youth offenders in Toledo, Ohio
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Youth offenders in Toledo, Ohio

Solis and Hahn estimate that there are approximately $89 million of pre-2009 juvenile detention debts still outstanding in Los Angeles County alone. However, just $120,000 — less than one percent — is collected each year.

"The amount of money we are actually collecting on these old debts isn't enough to even cover the resources we spend following up with these families," says Hahn. "It is time to end this practice once and for all."

According to Eli Hager, who writes for criminal justice non-profit organization The Marshall Project, the move makes logistical sense and sends a strong message to the rest of the country.

"Given that California has already ended this practice statewide, the decision by Los Angeles County to forgive debt from before 2009 — most of which was going to be impossible to collect in any event — is a largely symbolic one," Hager tells CNBC Make It. "If anything, its likely effect will be to save the county the expense of trying to keep collecting on all those outdated accounts. However, forgiving this large of a sum of money could send an important signal to other counties and states."

He explains that today, juvenile justice agencies bill parents and guardians of incarcerated children in 19 states and in at least 28 other states on an individual county basis.

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