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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Rachel Sottile and Kia C. Franklin: Undoing the injustice of juvenile fines and fees

Rachel Sottile and Kia C. Franklin

By Rachel Sottile and Kia C. Franklin

Over the past decade, the Washington Legislature has recognized that charging fines and fees – which used to require youth and their families to pay for prosecution, community service, diversion programs, and many other costs – is harmful.

Last year, legislators took away juvenile courts’ power to charge people fines and fees. But many still owe money for fines and fees imposed before July 2023. It’s illegal for courts to accept payment on this debt, but, nonsensically, courts will not write it off as the legislation originally intended. This is causing thousands of people real harm. Uncollectible debt can be a barrier to record sealing, shows up on background checks, impacts credit, and can still lead to harassing calls from debt collectors. This process should also be automatic– when similar criminal record relief was not automatic, it was estimated that less than 5% of eligible people were able to get it.

Fortunately, a bill has passed the Legislature that would automatically clear juvenile court fine and fee debt: Senate Bill 5974, sponsored by Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle. We have been working on this issue for several years now as leaders of the Debt Free Youth Justice Washington coalition. Our coalition believes that youth deserve to succeed after involvement in the juvenile legal system, which means not leaving them with debt and collateral consequences hanging over their heads.

Extensive research shows that monetary sanctions (called “legal financial obligations” in Washington), including restitution, fall disproportionately on Black and Indigenous youth, communities of color and rural families. These monetary sanctions have been shown to increase recidivism, cause tension between youth and parents, and even negatively impact health.

Statewide, there are 143,000 cases with outstanding juvenile fine and fee debt totaling about $43 million. This debt is distributed unequally by county – for example, there is more than $330 of debt for every 10-17 year old in Jefferson County, about $220 in Kitsap County, $127 in Grant County, about $30 in Spokane County, and less than $2 per youth in Adams County. It also falls disproportionately on Black and Indigenous youth, and those who were under 14 when they were charged.

The fact that outstanding debt can’t be waived automatically seems to be a unique feature of Washington law. You might think that it would be relatively easy for the government to write off “bad debt,” like any small business can. Nothing in this legislation would even require repayment of this money, courts would only need to write off legally uncollectible balances.

However, Washington’s “non-unified” court system allows every jurisdiction to develop their own processes and systems, which often results in “justice by geography” as courts approach implementation in different ways. We are glad to see Washington on the precipice of joining the number of states, counties, cities, and courts across the country and political spectrum that have eliminated juvenile fines and fees and automatically waived debt. These include Montana, Oregon, California, Colorado, Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and many others.

We are excited to work with courts and other partners to develop systems that support youth success and stability. SB 5974 begins this task by eliminating court debt for thousands of young Washingtonians. But the most important thing, and the bare minimum, is that Washington’s young people and their families deserve to be free from uncollectible, unenforceable, and unjust fines and fees that should never have been imposed in the first place.

Rachel Sottile, of Seattle, serves as president and CEO of the Center for Children & Youth Justice, leading communities, our state, and the nation in empowering children and youth, stabilizing families, and strengthening communities through meaningful and lasting justice reform. Kia C. Franklin, of SeaTac, Washington, is executive director of Stand for Children Washington and an education equity advocate dedicated to working in, with, and alongside communities to create transformative change for students.