Juvenile Justice Law Opens up Opportunities for Tens of Thousands of Washingtonians

Friday, July 24, 2015

On July 24, 2015, tens of thousands of Washingtonians, and thousands of youth every year, will have significantly more opportunities despite childhood mistakes. This historic change comes as a result of a major juvenile justice law – the Youth Equality and Reintegration Act (SB 5564) – which was passed by the Washington legislature this past legislative session.

For over a decade, young people have repeatedly testified in the state legislature that sealing juvenile records can make all the difference in leading productive adult lives: getting a job, accessing higher education, and finding housing. As a result of the YEAR Act, the nonviolent offenses of youth will be sealed on their 18th birthdays so long as they have paid restitution, if any, to individual victims.

In addition to allowing youth to seal their records after paying back victims, the YEAR Act abolishes all but two legal financial obligations (LFOs) imposed on youth—the millions of dollars of court costs, fees, and fines that can keep youth trapped in a cycle of debt and incarceration for life.

Youth and adults can also ask the court to modify or dismiss existing juvenile LFOs. This means tens of thousands of Washingtonians can finally seal their records and start with a clean slate. And starting today, the roughly 10,000 Washington youth who pass through our juvenile justice system every year will never experience this burden, which disproportionately affects youth of color and youth from low-income families.

“The combination of high fees, interest, and inability to seal records created an insurmountable barrier to kids being able to lead productive lives and realize their full potential,” says Hillary Madsen, Staff Attorney with the Children and Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services. “There are too many young people who have overcome so much to turn their lives around, but are still haunted by a mistake from when they were 15 or 16. The YEAR Act represents an opportunity to change this, all while improving the economy and public safety.”

Additional changes in the YEAR Act include: converting restitution to community service; allowing judges to modify or relieve restitution obligations for good cause, including inability to pay; and giving judges the discretion to enter independent rather than joint and several liability.

The prime legislative sponsors were Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-University Place) and Rep. Ruth Kagi (D-Seattle) and the advocacy was also led by students from the University of Washington Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic. More information on the YEAR Act is available here: http://bit.ly/1LyKBjJ .