Black-and-white photo depicting a chain-link fence that blocks the photographer from the CFJC under construction. A sign on the fence reads, "Conditions of Entry...City of Seattle."

Washington Ends Practice of Parents Paying for Their Child’s Incarceration

by Agueda Pacheco Flores

After more than three decades, a law that dramatically impacted families in the state of Washington was repealed. The policy, known as “parent pay,” which required parents to pay for their child’s time in incarceration, came to an end last month with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The executive director of the Washington State Stand for Children advocacy group, Kia Franklin, called the program “exploitative, inequitable, and destabilizing.” 

“I know many folks, some really close to me, that have gone through the system and it’s hard to tell that story,” Franklin, who grew up in the South End, said. 

Since 1977, families have had to pay a portion of their income to pay for the fees incurred by youth jailed in juvenile detention centers. More recently, even though the average cost of fees was $537, nearly $1.1 million in debt was collectively owed by just 242 families in the state. 

Statistics provided by Stand For Children also show that a parent could be charged up to 20% of their gross household income, meanwhile nearly 72% of families earned less than the 150% rate under the federal poverty level — that’s an average income of $31,000 a year for a family of three. 

The law was effective immediately, canceling the $1.1 million owed as of March 24, when Gov. Jay Inslee signed the legislation. 

“This is just the beginning,” Franklin said. “The need for removing this is about minimum reform to the system; there’s system-wide transformation that needs to take place.”

Franklin adds there are still other accessory fees incurred by youth and families outside of parent pay that need to be examined as well, including, but not limited to, the DNA collection fee, victim’s penalty assessment, diversion, bail fees, and evaluation fees. 

Parent pay laws were common in many states and counties across the country, such as California, which repealed its parent pay laws in 2017. Experts find that because the juvenile justice system primarily impacts lower-income families who often find themselves unable to pay, the policy was an inefficient source of income for municipalities. The same goes in Washington, where legislators would usually write it off in a budget to make up for the gap. 

Like many other criminal justice policies, parent pay also disproportionately affected families of color.

“What this signals is that we are really willing to lean in, roll up our sleeves, and understand what we are doing that is harmful and that is rooted in historic premises and ideology that just aren’t relevant for today’s world,” said Allison Krutsinger, the director of government affairs and community engagement at the State’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF). 

DCYF, which is a fairly new department that was formed in 2019 to restructure the way the State reaches out to at-risk youth, staunchly supported the end of parent pay after it examined the way parent pay functioned within the department. They spoke with stakeholders such as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and parents impacted by the law. DCYF was in charge of billing and collecting debt from parents. 

“You can only imagine what that does to the relationship when you’re trying to engage the family to support rehabilitation and successful transition,” Krutsinger said. 

DCYF is also looking into a similar policy that impacts families with children in out-of-home care. Currently, when a child goes into foster care, DCYF begins the process of billing parents through the child support enforcement which collects child support. 

Stand for Children’s executive director says the path forward is clear. 

“I think what happens next is to tackle the remaining fines and fees young people are charged,” said Franklin.

Agueda Pacheco Flores is a journalist focusing on Latinx culture and Mexican American identity. Originally from Querétaro, Mexico, Pacheco Flores is inspired by her own bicultural upbringing as an undocumented immigrant and proud Washingtonian.

📸 Featured Image: Outside Seattle’s Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) in 2020, formerly King County Juvenile Detention (Photo: Susan Fried)

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