The Marshall Project in collaboration with the Washington Post
By Eli Hager
In dozens of one-on-one meetings every week, a lawyer retained by the city of Philadelphia summons parents whose children have just been jailed, pulls out his calculator and hands them more bad news: a bill for their kids’ incarceration.
Even if a child is later proved innocent, the parents still must pay a nightly rate for the detention. Bills run up to $1,000 a month, and many of the parents of Philadelphia’s roughly 730 detained children are so poor they can afford monthly installments of only $5.
The lawyer, Steven Kaplan — who according to his city contract is paid up to $316,000 a year in salary and bonuses, more than any city employee, including the mayor — is one agent of a deeply entrenched social policy that took root across the country in the 1970s and ’80s. The guiding principle was simple: States, counties and cities believed that parents were shedding responsibility for their delinquent children and expecting the government to pick up the tab.
If parents shared the financial cost of incarceration, this thinking went, they would be more involved in keeping their children out of trouble.
“I mean, do we think the taxpayers should be supporting these bad kids?” Kaplan said in an interview.
Today, mothers and fathers are billed for their children’s incarceration — in jails, detention centers, court-ordered treatment facilities, training schools or disciplinary camps — by 19 state juvenile-justice agencies, while in at least 28 other states, individual counties can legally do the same, a survey by The Marshall Project shows.