OLYMPIA – At the age of 14, Nuu Leae was charged with a crime and received a one-year sentence and a bill for restitution totaling $12,000.
After serving his time, Leae – then 15 – was saddled with debt and felt unprepared to re-enter society. With a criminal record, he struggled to find employment to earn money and pay back his debt. The state began deducting money out of his mother’s paychecks to pay Leae’s fines, and 13 years after being sentenced, the debt from the fees ruined his credit.
“I naturally made money on the streets to help and survive how I knew,” Leae told a committee of lawmakers recently. “I felt the court should be held accountable and holds a greater responsibility than me.”
The Legislature is considering a bill seeking to eliminate legal financial obligations in juvenile court, including fines, fees and restitution. In lieu of charging juvenile offenders restitution, the bill would establish a Community Compensation Program to pay victims of crimes committed by juveniles. The proposal does not address how the state would fund the program.
Bill sponsor Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, said court fines and fees are “causing great harm in our systems” and holding back youth after they’ve served their time.
“At the end of the day, I also want to make sure that those folks who are harmed are also getting the services and support that they need, which is going to be paid for out of this compensation fund, and that’s not happening right now.”
Stories like Leae’s are commonplace in juvenile court. Shawnee Stillwell and Alexis Hale, both from Spokane, are currently serving time in Echo Glen Children’s Center, a detention facility in King County. Stillwell owes several thousand dollars in restitution, and she can’t seal her record until she pays this debt.
“I feel this is setting me up for failure as I will not be able to get a decent job with a (criminal) record and be able to make all the money I owe,” Stillwell said.
The bill would allow courts to seal juvenile records, even when offenders still owe restitution.
Juvenile court fines and fees disproportionately affect low-income families, who often don’t have the expendable income to pay back fees before they accrue interest or lower credit scores, supporters of the bill said.
“Remorse should not be measured by the amount of money someone pays. As a young adult in a rehabilitation facility, I have learned taking accountability has nothing to do with money,” Hale said. “Financially burdening a youth is not rehabilitative.”
In 2021, outstanding juvenile court fines and fees totaled more than $1.5 million in Spokane County and more than $40 million statewide, not including restitution, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Because juveniles often struggle to pay restitution, victims are often left uncompensated.
“Victims lose because they so infrequently collect compensation under our financial restitution scheme, often under the guise they will receive financial reparations, and all too frequently are left without any,” said Rachel Sottile, president and CEO of Center for Children and Youth Justice. “Ability to pay determinations demonstrate youth cannot pay these debts,” she continued.
Proponents of this legislation said the proposed Community Compensation Program would be more effective in delivering financial justice to victims. The program would be administered by the Department of Labor and Industries. Funding will come out of the state’s general fund budget, the department predicts, though the bill doesn’t identify a source of funding.
The bill instructs a task force, created within the department, to outline a plan for the program by July 2025, including determining eligibility and calculating amounts owed to victims.
Testimony was largely in support of the bill, but opponents of this legislation said restitution from the offender is instrumental in holding juveniles accountable.
“It is part of understanding the harm that’s been caused, and it’s part of restorative justice,” said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Court administrators said the bill raised some questions. Fines and fees fund court technologies, so if they were eliminated in juvenile court, administrators would need to find a new funding source.
Leae is now 27 and works in outreach for high-risk youth in King County at the YMCA’s Social Impact Center. The debt from LFOs has made it difficult for him to buy a car and find housing.
“I am limited from the simple things in life and forever will have invisible shackles on my back keeping me from living the American dream, which is freedom and good credit,” Leae said.
A Senate committee voted 4-3 on Thursday to move the bill out of committee.