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Advocates push to eliminate fees charged to parents of kids incarcerated in Washington

A jogger runs past the Legislative Building just before dusk at the Capitol in Olympia.   (Associated Press)
A jogger runs past the Legislative Building just before dusk at the Capitol in Olympia.  (Associated Press)
By Vanessa Ontiveros Yakima Herald-Republic

For years, parents of some children incarcerated in Washington juvenile rehabilitation facilities have been required to pay a percentage of their gross income to the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The funds are supposed to cover some of the treatment and residential services the child uses while incarcerated.

But the monetary benefit to DCYF is low, said Allison Krutsinger, DCYF’s director of government affairs and community engagement. The department receives approximately $1 million a year from these fees, about a quarter of what is collected.

The requirement also disproportionately affects low-income families and people of color, she said.

The department is asking the Legislature to get rid of the fees and cover the gap in funding from the state general fund, Krutsinger said. Senate Bill 5535 also would cancel any outstanding debts related to these fees.

A legal ‘relic’

DCYF and Washington advocacy groups are pushing for the repeal in a call for a fairer system for those involved in the juvenile legal system.

Krutsinger said the fee model does not align with the current goals of DCYF, which prioritize equity.

“I describe it as a relic of old statute,” she said. “It was a statute that was adopted in 1977, so sort of in the crime and punishment era, if you will.”

The parent pay statute disproportionately affects low-income families who find themselves struggling to pay these fines and fees, Krutsinger said. It also affects Black, Hispanic and Native American households more, as members of these groups make up a disproportionate number of incarcerated people.

The Center for Children and Youth Justice, a juvenile legal system reform group in Washington, supports the repeal. CCYJ President Rachel Sottile said youth programs in the Washington legal system are meant to rehabilitate young offenders. However, the fines create a financial burden on families that further tie people into the incarceration system.

“For a family to have to choose between fines and fees and clearing their child’s criminal record or … between food, housing, or basic necessities is unfair, unjust, and frankly inequitable,” she said.

She said Washington has positioned itself as a leader when it comes to social justice and judicial reform and that these fees must be repealed to live up to that reputation.

Advocates said many people are unaware this law exists. Stand for Children Washington, the state chapter of a nationwide education and child welfare advocacy group, voiced support for DCYF’s attempt to repeal the statute. Part of that support includes raising awareness.

“We feel like it’s going to bring this to light and essentially clean up an issue that most people don’t even know is happening, but it really has a very detrimental burden on young people and their families,” said Virginia Barry, the organization’s policy and government affairs manager.

Teresa Harmon, an attorney with youth advocacy and legal aid group Team Child, said Yakima has a higher-than-average rate of people living in poverty. About 14.8% of people in Yakima County live below the poverty line, whereas statewide that number is about 9.5%, according to Census Bureau data.

The higher poverty rate means that these fees are likely to have a disproportionate effect on local families.

“I think it’s specifically impacted by this parent pay statute and just continuing to mire people in poverty,” Harmon said.

Future of fees

For Sottile and the team at CCYJ, the repeal of the statewide parent pay statute is part of a larger attempt to put an end to fines and fees in the juvenile legal system.

“It’s just the beginning,” she said. “The time is now, and now more than ever it is essential for us to start taking actions that align with equitable and fair and just criminal legal systems both for youth and adults.”

Other states have taken measures to reform legal fees. Oregon eliminated its fines and fees for juvenile offenders last year. In 2021, the California Supreme Court eliminated cash bail for those who cannot afford to pay it.

The bill proposed by DCYF would still allow for counties to collect fines and fees from families of incarcerated youth. Yakima County collected $5,991 in legal financial obligation fees in fiscal year 2019-20, according to data collected by Stand for Children Washington.

The bill received its first hearing last week in the Senate Committee on Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation.

Advocates and DCYF staff said the bill’s prospects are good.

“I’ve been wrong a time or two in my life, but I’m very optimistic,” DCYF’s Krutsinger said. “The momentum is right. We have good allies and good advocates on our side who have worked on this.”

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