A woman's son is dead but she must still pay thousands of dollars in fees stemming from his incarceration. Teens on house arrest get billed on average $15 per day for their GPS monitoring anklet. Juvenile offenders face huge restitution payments that they can't afford, potentially leading to rearrest.
"Double Charged" examined the consequences of California's practice of charging juvenile offenders a percentage of the cost of their incarceration and probation. The yearlong investigation found that the juvenile justice fees can place a crushing financial burden on low-income teens and their families.
It was high caliber journalistic work that combined dogged research, data journalism and interactive storytelling. A number of national news outlets ran the series.
Here's the part I love. It was conceived and executed by teens and young adults -- collaborating with adult professionals -- at Youth Radio in Oakland.
For two decades now, the nonprofit organization has been training young people to report and produce news from a youth perspective that is often absent in mainstream news coverage. Youth Radio (https://youthradio.org/) sent one of its reporters to Ferguson in Missouri to find out what young people think about the police killing of Michael Brown.
Youth Radio student-produced reports have won top media honors such as the Peabody Award, one of the top honors for electronic storytelling. You may have heard their reports on NPR.
Youth Radio's latest cutting edge venture is called the "Innovation Lab."
Now, in addition to learning how to produce news, youth are being taught to design and build the apps that are increasingly determining how information gets disseminated. They are learning each step of the process from developing an idea to creating a user-driven design to pushing an app out to the public and getting people to use it.
"Each one of these steps leads to a career path," says Elisabeth Soep, senior producer and research director for Youth Radio. And not necessarily in journalism. Students have gone on to college to major in computer science.
The Innovation Lab's first major project was "Double Charged."
The youth journalists contacted all 58 California counties to determine which ones charged juvenile offenders part of the cost for their prosecution, incarceration and probation.
One of the most compelling stories came from within Youth Radio itself.
DeShawn Morris had been a Youth Radio intern. In 2010, Morris, then 17, was arrested for armed robbery. According to the Youth Radio report, he ended up serving 56 days in Juvenile Hall and another 152 days at a boot camp in the Mendocino forest. In 2012, Morris was shot and killed in Vallejo. His mother Zoe Mathews was not only left to grieve the loss of her son but was saddled with a $7,500 debt from his incarceration.
The youth journalists worked side-by-side with Lauren Benichou, the Innovation Lab developer to build an interactive website. Benichou is a former freelance journalist turned computer programmer. Some of the interns had never written computer code. Benichou did the heavy lifting but allowed the students, depending on their level of expertise, to fill in the rest.
Last year, Youth Radio was awarded a $1.7 million grant by the National Science Foundation along with co-grantee -- the MIT Media Lab Center for Mobile Learning -- to teach youth to create and build mobile apps.
"The idea is we are trying to open up the entire world of mobile apps that kids can take control of to express their creativity," says Hal Abelson, director of MIT's Center for Mobile Learning that aims to transform education through mobile computing. "I love the idea that we are taking the tech that we are building and merging that with Youth Radio's empowering of young people."
Youth Radio was an early adapter of App Inventor, a program designed by Google Labs to help computer-programming novices to build apps. The MIT Media Lab now administers App Inventor. Earlier this summer, Youth Radio journalists went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to present their work.
The youth journalists are developing a mobile app for Youth Radio that would allow users to engage with the site by sharing photos and captions as well as participating in polls.
"We started out wanting to make apps for the community," says Asha Richardson, a 2013 Mills College graduate and the manager of the Innovation Lab. "But now we've decided to take data to tell stories or make up apps that collect data to tell more informed stories."
If "Double Charged" is a sign of things to come, they are off to a great start.
Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Thursday and Sunday. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her at Twitter.com/tammerlin.