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Youth Face Big Consequences if They Can't Pay Court Costs

Young people face a "debtors' prison" when they are unable to pay court-related costs, according to a new report. (Luke Palmer/Unsplash)
Young people face a "debtors' prison" when they are unable to pay court-related costs, according to a new report. (Luke Palmer/Unsplash)
September 14, 2016

SEATTLE - Young people face a "debtors' prison" of sorts when they're unable to pay court-related costs, and a new report says it can even drag them deeper into the juvenile-justice system.

Court fines and fees in Washington include the cost of court-ordered evaluations, supervision during probation and the cost to avoid formal processing, such as alternative community-based activities, according to a Juvenile Justice Center report.

Kim Ambrose, a University of Washington law professor, said the state has worked to rectify a system that keeps a young person's record unsealed until they have paid off their court fees.

"Because young people or their families were not able to pay off those fines and fees - and that also includes restitution owed to victims - because of that, young people have had juvenile records on their record basically indefinitely," she said.

The report recommended that states eliminate costs, fines and fees by establishing more sustainable and effective models for funding court systems. Last year, Washington passed the Youth Equality and Reintegration or "YEAR" Act, which gives judges the discretion to consider a youth's financial status when determining restitution costs. Ambrose said the YEAR Act also allows people with juvenile offenses before 2015 to reduce their restitution costs and have their juvenile records sealed. But once again, she said, access to the services to do this are limited for lower-income individuals and families.

"You just have to have heard of the law and somehow know that you can go ask the court to reduce your restitution obligation," she said. "Well, that means you have to file a motion in court, and so this again is where people that can't afford lawyers don't know that they can go into court and actually move to have that amount of restitution reduced."

Ambrose said access to diversion programs - an alternative to incarceration that can fully expunge a young person's record - also can be difficult for poorer families, although they can file petitions to have the price of the program adjusted according to their means.

The Juvenile Law Center report is online at debtorsprison.jlc.org.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA