When University of Washington (UW) law student Thomas O’Ban worked as an intern for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, one thing that struck him was the immense amount of money youth in the juvenile justice system had to pay to have their criminal records sealed — sometimes tens of thousands in court fines, fees and restitution to victims.
“It just struck me how completely unobtainable that would be for me, unless I had parents to pay for it,” O’Ban said, “that their shot at a second chance seemed to depend on what kind of family they had.”
As many who committed crimes in their teens have testified in the state legislature, sealing those records at age 18 can make all the difference in leading productive adult lives: getting a job, accessing higher education and finding housing. But until now, juvenile offenders in Washington were not eligible to seal until they had paid all their legal financial obligations (LFO).
That’s where SB 5564, signed into law on May 14 by Governor Jay Inslee, comes in. Called the Youth Equality and Reintegration Act (YEAR), it abolishes nearly all lfos for youth in Washington’s criminal justice system and prevents local governments from creating new lfos for juveniles.
“We’ve done something pretty momentous in saying we’re going to eliminate these,” said Hillary Madsen, staff attorney at Columbia Legal Services. “We’re seeing how these fees can be so detrimental in trapping people in poverty in general.”
According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, the total number of open lfos in juvenile offender cases at the end of April was nearly 160,000.
Sponsored by Steve O’Ban, R-University Place and Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, the bill leaves two lfos intact: a dna collection fee and a criminal victim’s assessment penalty for certain serious offenses, though it eliminates the state’s 12 percent interest.
Juveniles still must pay restitution to crime victims before sealing records, but judges can now convert restitution to community service after consulting victims and can take a youth’s ability to pay into account when determining the amount.
The restitution aspect of the bill was a compromise — the original bill did not require full restitution payment before record sealing if a juvenile was making a good-faith effort. Kagi and Madsen said they are happy with the final bill, and see it as balancing the interest of protecting victims while giving youth a second chance.
“The feedback we were getting is that victims need to feel like they are being heard, and that they were hurt,” Madsen said. “Often, a victim of a crime is also a person living in poverty and may not have any more options than the person who hurt them. It’s a complicated question, but the bill is a great compromise.”
For some juvenile offenders, the largest portion of the restitution money they owe is to insurance companies. When it comes to vehicular or property damage, they may owe a couple hundred to a personal victim for an insurance deductible, but thousands to the company itself.
The year act allows record sealing before insurance company restitution is fully paid, limiting the requirement to personal victims. It also eliminates co-liability in cases where an amount is owed by several people; until now, the full amount would have to be paid before a record was sealed, even when an individual had paid his or her share.
Madsen stressed that the bill affects anyone in Washington who has outstanding lfos from a juvenile offense. If they still owe money and interest, she said, they can now petition the court for relief.
The bill, which passed in one session nearly unanimously, rides the momentum of a drastic change in the juvenile justice system last year. Before 2014, Washington was one of seven states that gave complete public access to juvenile records, according to a report by the Juvenile Law Center. Though juveniles could petition to have them sealed, it was an arduous process.
Columbia Legal has been pushing for more confidentiality in juvenile records for a decade, trying to ensure the juvenile justice system is aimed at rehabilitation and reintegration rather than punitive measures that create barriers for youth attempting to change their lives for the better. According to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, 96 percent of offenses charged in juvenile court are non-violent.
“It had created a really insurmountable barrier to kids being able to lead productive lives and realize their full potential,” Madsen said. “You come into contact with so many stories of people who have overcome so much to turn their lives around, but are still haunted by something they did when they were 15 or 16.”
In 2014, the Youth Opportunities Act created automatic record sealing — with the exception of certain serious offenses — for juveniles at age 18 after completing community supervision, release from confinement or parole and after paying all LFOs. That last requirement, advocates say, led to disparity between high and low-income youth.
So five students from UW's Children and Youth Legislative Advocacy Clinic, including Thomas O’Ban, lobbied for and began working on the year Act. O’Ban, who called the work the most meaningful thing he’s done in law school, testified in support of the act at a March 18 House
Early Learning and Human Services Committee meeting, alongside several others.
One youth from Green Hill correctional facility said he owes $125,000 to an insurance company, but is jointly liable for $500,000 owed with three others. A mother who was involved in a hit-and-run at 15 said she has been unable to pay all her lfos and that her juvenile record has kept her from getting a decent job and accessing housing after ending up in a shelter due to domestic violence.
Another youth, Solinuu Leae, said he has paid $1,000 of what he owes by working at a training wage of about $1.50 after being convicted of robbery at 15. But he is nervous no one will hire him once he’s released.
“I want to earn a life of living instead of a life expecting to die,” he said. “I think everyone who learns to work hard and is trying to make changes deserves a second chance and a fresh start.”
Beyond the year Act, Madsen said she is also interested in looking into the overall dissemination of juvenile records in the age of the Internet and how to protect records that have already been bought and sold by consumer agencies.
For Madsen, one sentence from the testimony of Stephen Warning, a Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge, resounds: “Not every sentence that I impose on a juvenile should be a life sentence.”