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For Young Offenders, Restitution Debts Can Present Crippling Obstacles

WASHINGTON — Arabella Guevara spent much of her adolescence paying for her mistakes.

She entered the juvenile justice system at 13, after she ran away from home for the first time, hoping to escape a volatile relationship with her mother. Before long, running away escalated to petty theft, then stealing cars and breaking into homes. It cost her nearly two years spent in and out of juvenile facilities, and many additional months still tied to the system through probation.

When her final stint on probation ended last year and her juvenile record was sealed because she had turned 18, “It was like a whole chapter of my life that had been closed,” Ms. Guevara said in an interview. “I was free.”

But before long she began receiving monthly reminders that she was anything but. Bills totaling $60,000 in restitution owed for her crimes began pouring in, drowning the teenager in debt just as she had started trying to get back on her feet.

Ms. Guevara, now 19, is one of thousands of teenagers and young adults across the country paying restitution imposed by juvenile courts to compensate their victims for losses and damages related to their crimes. But a new report examining the practice asserts that many are paying into a broken system — one that often derails the lives of the young offenders the juvenile system was created to rehabilitate, all the while delaying or even denying compensation to their victims.

The report, published Thursday by the Juvenile Law Center, a legal aid and advocacy group in Philadelphia, sheds light on a rarely scrutinized process through which juvenile offenders can become trapped in a perpetual cycle of debts owed to society.

Ms. Guevara has been off probation for more than a year; she has had no encounters with the police. She is the mother of a newborn boy, and works at an advocacy organization in her hometown, San Jose, Calif., helping at-risk youth stay out of the criminal justice system.

“I have to pay for a crime that I’ve already paid for, and I can’t afford it,” Ms. Guevara said. “It’s like society has deemed us as unworthy of redemption.”

While the imposition of similarly burdensome fines and fees on juvenile offenders and their families has drawn attention from policymakers in recent years, advocates and lawyers say the restitution system has proved more difficult to reform. That’s in part because that system is built on a false premise, they say.

“The theory of restitution is to make the victim whole, and there’s also supposed to be a lesson to the child that their actions have consequences,” said Nicole El, the assistant chief of the Children and Youth Justice Unit in Philadelphia’s public defender’s office. “What it does in practice is handcuff children and their families financially.”

The Juvenile Law Center report, which examined youth restitution laws in all 56 states and U.S. territories, does not quantify how many young people owe restitution from year to year. But it found a patchwork of policies that the report’s authors described as delivering “justice by geography,” burdening indigent youth with little to no income with debts that many will never pay or finish paying. And although the system was created in the 1960s as a way to offer mostly white juvenile offenders an alternative to jail, it now largely burdens poor youth of color, who are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.

Every juvenile court across the country has the right to order restitution — usually imposed for crimes such as property damage and theft — but the way amounts are determined varies wildly, as does enforcement, the report found.

Eleven states and territories mandate restitution when any quantifiable damages are assessed, while the rest leave it up to a judge’s discretion. Only five states and three territories cap the restitution a young offender can be ordered to pay, the report found. Those who cannot pay end up facing a range of penalties — including incarceration, extended probation and the inability to expunge their records — that can keep young people entangled in the system well beyond the length of their sentences. In one of the most extreme policies, the report found, juvenile courts in Washington State can retain jurisdiction over young people until they turn 28, and can extend a restitution judgment by 10 additional years for collection purposes.

But the report also pointed to an equally worrisome outcome: the system rarely works as intended for crime victims themselves. In states that report restitution collections, none reported more than a third of such payments actually being collected. One study cited in the report found that as much as 77 percent of all restitution ordered goes uncollected.

Fourteen jurisdictions order restitution to be paid to third parties, such as government agencies and insurance companies, while others require young people to pay into state victim compensation funds, which are difficult for many victims to access.

Victims’ rights groups also see shortcomings in the system. The National Center for Victims of Crime said in a statement that while it believes financial compensation is an important part of the “restorative process” for crime survivors, it also believes that “imposing high restitution costs on juveniles who are justice involved can unintentionally cause more harm by creating barriers to release and services.”

“In addition,” the statement said, “we know that the majority of youth who are justice involved have histories of trauma and victimization, and a large financial obligation may cause even more harm. We would encourage communities to engage with both survivors and justice-involved youth to determine a process that is fair and restorative to all parties.”

The Juvenile Law Center is advocating several reforms, including alternatives such as diversion programs with a restorative justice approach and expanding the eligibility for state victim compensation funds.

Maine passed legislation in 2019 that reformed its juvenile restitution system and is showing results, legal experts say. The new statutes now presume that people younger than 16 are not able to pay restitution, allow for a juvenile offender’s restitution to be reduced or wiped clean should their circumstances change and require payments to go directly to victims rather than corporations like insurance companies.

As a result, youth offenders in their 20s have been able to leave the juvenile system after having their restitution balances discharged, said Christopher Northrop, a clinical professor at the University of Maine School of Law, who also leads a legal aid clinic that helped advocate the changes. Younger offenders, who are allowed to perform community service and other restorative justice activities in lieu of payment, have seen their cases resolved more quickly.

“It has eliminated the collateral consequence of system involvement for young people so they can get on with their lives,” said Jill Ward, an adjunct professor at the Law School and director of the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law.

More than 30 states do not require courts to consider whether a youth can pay. Some expressly prohibit them from doing so, which the report said can present crippling obstacles to youth as they transition to adulthood. They can face garnished wages, including from their commissary accounts while in juvenile detention and their paychecks when they are employed.

Some laws allow unpaid restitution to accrue interest, and turn into a civil liability, which can in turn wreak havoc on credit scores and other public records of consequence.

Ultimately, the report found, “this means a child from a well-off family who can easily pay off restitution gets a clean slate as they leave the system, while a child from a poor family is stuck with a record of juvenile justice involvement for no reason other than poverty.”

In some states, such as California, where Ms. Guevara lives, the financial responsibility falls to the parents if a youth cannot pay.

Since being released from juvenile detention, Ms. Guevara has been living with her mother off and on; though their relationship has remained rocky, they have survived homelessness and eviction together, and Ms. Guevara did not want to further burden her.

After receiving notices threatening to take them both to court, she began paying $7 per month to the state, which is what she can afford while working part time for $20 an hour and paying her bills.

Her restitution payments are supposed to cover medical bills for the injuries one victim suffered when she tried to prevent Ms. Guevara from stealing her car; fees to change security systems and locks in the homes she invaded; and damage to the cars that she stole.

The philosophy that “you do the crime, you pay the fine” is pervasive in courts, advocates say, but it undermines the very point of a system that is supposed to be redemptive, rather than punitive, as the adult system is, Ms. El said.

She and other public defenders often find themselves performing a balancing act in trying to advocate for their clients, she said, many of whom come from households with incomes under $10,000 a year. “We don’t want victims to be out thousands and thousands of dollars — we’re people like everyone else — but we’re also representing children,” Ms. El said. “And is it reasonable that children can pay back thousands of dollars? It is not.”

In studies cited in the report, interviews with victims eligible for restitution found that very few seek monetary compensation from juvenile offenders.

Moreover, state-reported data reviewed by the Juvenile Law Center shows that those victims who do seek restitution from young offenders rarely succeed in collecting it. For example, in a 2017 study conducted in Alabama, only 15 percent of the restitution fees related to juvenile cases were eventually collected.

Ms. Guevara said she thinks about her victims often, particularly an elderly man whose car she stole. She later found out was a retired sheriff. He visited her in a juvenile facility and was so disturbed at the sight of her in shackles that he requested they be removed.

Sitting across from her, the former sheriff, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said all he wanted was to know what had happened in her life that brought her to that night, and a promise from her that she would work toward righting her path.

These days, she said, keeping that promise feels ever more elusive.

The two-bedroom apartment Ms. Guevara shared with her mother and four others felt too crowded recently, and tensions began running high. Determined not to expose her son to the tumult that characterized her own childhood, she found herself on the move again.

The same week she became homeless, her restitution was abruptly raised to $100 per month — or, by Ms. Guevara’s calculation, four packs of diapers and three of baby formula.

“I was doing good, just trying to do the right thing, and it’s not enough for them,” she said. “It’s like I’m locked up again.”

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