Promise and Potential in the Pause Between Sessions

Robin Zukoski, Policy Director

We may be about halfway between the 2015 and 2016 Legislative Sessions and your attention has turned from Olympia to the start of a new school year and the upcoming fall elections. But let’s take a quick look back at an especially nail-biting 2015 session that – marked by special sessions, late night speculation, and midnight meetings—was a pretty great year for our clients. 

Columbia Legal Services (CLS) participated in successes both large and small, and our coalition partners accomplished much that will impact the lives of low-income populations by increasing opportunities, shoring-up supports, and preserving protections.

The Big Wins

A better second chance for people with juvenile offense records. Over the past decade, CLS has helped lead a coalition of advocates to transform the collateral consequences of juvenile offenses. Even after multiple successes, prior to this year, children with juvenile records were unable to leave their past mistakes behind; their juvenile records could follow them for life if they didn’t have the money to pay their legal financial obligations (LFOs)—the fines and fees associated with the conviction. Now, most juvenile records will be sealed (even if they owe restitution to an insurance company) and no longer will prevent them from getting jobs, housing, and education. Thanks to the YEAR Act, most juveniles will incur no LFOs and those with existing debt may have the balance waived. For those who are unable to reduce their LFOs, the interest rate has been reduced from 12% to zero. People can have their records sealed if the only restitution they owe is to an insurance company. This policy change impacts 160,000 persons immediately and untold numbers more in the future. For more information, see our Children & Youth Project.

Youthful offenders will be treated like youth. CLS also supported a bill that allows youth whose sentences last beyond their 18th birthday and who reside at a juvenile justice facility to access the full array of re-entry and rehabilitative services that are available to other youth.

Economic supports shored up. The final budget includes a 9% Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant increase to offset part of the 15% reduction imposed in 2011. This raises the monthly support for a family of three from $478 to $521 for 67,000 children and their families—money that can be used for a new winter coat or to pay heating bills this winter.  Additionally, the state Food Assistance program which provides assistance to 15,600 families has finally been returned to parity with the Federal food program in order to help families put food on the table.

Young people in foster care have a little more time to build their future. Previously, youth were expelled from foster care when they turned 18, making it very difficult to attend college or take on full-time work activities because they had no housing or other supports. This year, CLS helped ensure that foster youth with medical issues could continue receiving foster care support until age 21. To learn more about the qualification requirements, see the Extended Foster Care Fact Sheet.

The state is working to help young people avoid homelessness. CLS co-chaired the group that developed the Homeless Youth Act, which creates a state Office for Homeless Youth and codifies the policy that no child should be released from state custody into homelessness.

Avoiding Setbacks on Hardfought Gains

We worked with ally organizations to oppose legislation that would have crippled essential services and protections for our clients. The perpetually-attacked Disability Lifeline programs for single disabled adults remain intact, an effort to undermine our recent limitation on payday lending stopped in its tracks, and the landlord tenant act avoided efforts to weaken its protections.

Preparing the Ground for Future Success

CLS advocates and our coalition partners made great progress this year on re-entry issues (Certificate of Restoration of Opportunities Act (CROP) and LFOs). We are hoping to push all the way next year so that people with criminal records can find work and move beyond debt. Our Immigrant Workers Group made progress in educating elected officials about the impact of pesticide drift on both farm workers in the fields and the surrounding communities.

Progress from Our Partners

Our coalition partners scored a big win with the Early Start Act. CLS was not directly involved in this effort, but it is very important for our clients because this historic legislation greatly expands access to high quality early learning and extends further support to caregivers in low-income and other communities. A significant feature of this legislation guarantees a 12-month placement slot for families who receive a Working Connections Child Care subsidy. This greatly relieves family stress and enhances outcomes for children.

There’s no special session planned at the moment. But we’re not resting. We’re spending the offseason strengthening our proposals, broadening our support, and meeting with legislators and staff to ensure victories for our communities across the state.