New Reforms for Former Juvenile Offenders Headed to Governor’s Desk

Friday, March 11, 2016

This week, the Washington State Legislature officially passed two bills, SB-5605 and HB-2906, also known as the Strengthening Opportunities and Rehabilitation for Juvenile Offenders (SOAR) Act. The bills are now headed to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk to be signed into law. These bills continue the recent trend towards rehabilitation and reintegration for youth, by recognizing that former juvenile offenders are less likely to re-offend and are more likely to support their own communities when they can be employed.

“Building on prior efforts to improve outcomes in the legal system, a group of stakeholders including prosecutors and public defenders proposed a key list of reforms,” said Rep. Melanie Stambaugh (R-Puyallup), prime sponsor for SOAR. “Young people are our future and this collaborative, community driven effort is what we need in the legal system to improve outcomes for our youth.”

The past two legislative seasons have seen significant bipartisan efforts to improve outcomes for former juvenile offenders. The Youth Opportunities Act in 2014 created a pathway to records sealing for youth in compliance with sentencing requirements. The Youth Equality and Reintegration (YEAR) Act in 2015 tackled legal financial obligations for juvenile offenders, eliminating most court fines and fees; giving judges discretion to commute fines to community service; allowing record sealing after payment of restitution to victims; and allowing former offenders to request modification or forgiveness on existing legal debts. Columbia Legal Services played a central role in advocating for these efforts.

Now with SOAR’s passage, youth will have increased opportunities to participate in deferred dispositions, to maintain drivers’ licenses, and to take responsibility for bad choices without being forced to pay fines they cannot afford or to become subject to arrest for family disputes over their parents’ objections.

“It is exciting to see the legislature make continued progress toward the successful rehabilitation and reintegration of former juvenile offenders from all socio-economic backgrounds,” said Hillary Madsen, staff attorney with the Children & Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services.

Key features of SB-5605 and HB-2906 include:

  • Amending the intent section of the Juvenile Justice Act of 1977 to specifically include rehabilitation and reintegration as one of the intentions of the legal system
  • Adding “restorative justice” programs to the list of community-based rehabilitation services that can be recommended by prosecutors
  • Creating a “strong presumption” that whenever a youth meets the statutory criteria for differed dispositions, it will be granted
  • Eliminating LFOs related to automobile theft and allowing judges to combine community service with home monitoring for first offenses
  • Eliminating the automatic suspension of drivers’ licenses for first time firearm, alcohol, and drug offenses 
  • Changing mandatory arrest for 16 and 17 years olds accused of assaulting a family or household member to requiring arrest only upon parents’ request
  • Allowing prosecutors discretion when filing charges for assault against a sibling, parent, stepparent or grandparent to characterize the assault as domestic violence

The bill’s sponsors include Rep. Melanie Stambaugh and Rep. Ruth Kagi in the House of Representatives and Sen. Jim Hargrove and Sen. Mark Miloscia in the Senate. Additionally, Sen. Jeannie Darneille, lead sponsor on SB-5605, helped ensure the changes to mandatory arrest were passed through the legislature this year.