As leaders on the national Debt Free Justice campaign, we’ve seen a sea change in recent years around financial punishments for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Advocates and lawmakers across the country are realizing what youth and families have long known: Ordering kids to pay money doesn’t work. In fact, 15 states have already passed laws that eliminate some or all juvenile system fines and fees.
Yet one type of financial punishment is often left behind: restitution. Intended to make a victim whole from harm caused by a young person, restitution carries with it a host of negative impacts in practice—including low victim satisfaction. In our new report, Reimagining Restitution: New Approaches for Youth and Communities [PDF], we examine these problems as well as alternatives that communities are building that are more humane, restorative, and that prevent unnecessary justice system involvement for young people.
Below are five key findings youth advocates should know about restitution in the juvenile justice system.
1. Youth Restitution Often Does Not Work for People Harmed by Crime
Youth involved in the juvenile system and their families frequently lack the financial resources to pay restitution orders. Youth aren’t trying to avoid their obligation—after all, punishments for nonpayment are serious, including incarceration or detention in 38 states and territories. They just lack the resources. Research also shows victims may prefer non-monetary reparations instead of money from youth.
Connections between youth payment and victim compensation are often tenuous. Youth in some states pay restitution into a large fund, and victims have to apply separately and meet sometimes-strict criteria to be compensated. Dr. Karin Martin calls this set-up “indirect restitution,” and notes that it has reduced the restorative impact of restitution for both youth and victims. On the other hand, some states define “victim” so broadly that youth may be ordered to pay restitution to government agencies, police, and even multi-billion-dollar insurance companies.
2. Victims Can Be Compensated Even Without Youth Restitution
Victim compensation funds are much more effective in making victims financially whole than youth restitution that depends on payments by children. This is particularly true because system-involved youth are often from low-income families. All states and most territories already operate federally funded Victim of Crime Act (VOCA) funds, which compensate victims for harm. While $400 million was paid out to victims in 2019, the last year for which this data is available, the federal budget for these funds is far greater at a healthy $1.7 billion.
VOCA funds are limited to victims of violent crime but expanding the eligibility criteria for these funds to cover all types of harm caused by a young person could ensure victims receive compensation without relying on payments by a young person. This would free communities to hold youth accountable in developmentally appropriate ways that do not involve money.
3. Restitution Does Not Effectively Hold Youth Accountable
Restitution does not work to hold children accountable for harm because children, as a class, cannot pay. This means families, not kids, end up footing the bill. Nine states have joint and several liability statutes that further undermine accountability by imposing financial obligations on children for someone else’s actions.
Restitution also creates a two-tiered justice system. Young people from well-off families pay and end their cases early, while youth from poor families remain trapped in the juvenile system for years—up to age 28 in Washington, for example—just because they cannot afford to pay. Yet the research shows children’s brains do not respond to long-term negative consequences like these.
Black, Latinx, and Indigenous youth, already disadvantaged by the racial wealth gap, are more likely to be punished in juvenile justice systems and less likely to be able to afford restitution. These disparities then deepen because states punish nonpayment of restitution especially harshly, including via incarceration, extended probation, denial of record-clearing, and civil judgment.
4. There Are Promising Alternatives to Restitution, Some Outside the Juvenile Justice System
Diversion programs, particularly those that use restorative justice principles, can rebuild trust and meet victims’ material needs without imposing monetary restitution. These programs show promising early results for reducing recidivism and increasing victim and youth satisfaction. If a child does end up in court, judges can use age-appropriate approaches to meet youth’s needs instead of restitution, like mediation, treatment, counseling, and pro-social programming.
Moreover, in many cases the best response to youth harm does not involve the juvenile justice system at all. Local communities, religious organizations, Indigenous tribes, and families regularly resolve problems informally, meeting both victims’ and youth’s needs without the collateral harms caused by the system. Investing in communities means more resources available for this kind of problem-solving.
5. Defenders Can and Should Challenge Restitution in Court
While restitution can be mandatory in some states, most states provide at least some protections for youth facing possible restitution orders, like hearings, limits on restitution, or access to alternative programs like those described above. Youth defenders do not have to take restitution for granted and can instead use these protections to reach a disposition that does not punish young clients for poverty. To see your state or territory’s restitution statutes, see here.
Even in jurisdictions with no specific limits on restitution, restitution typically must serve the “rehabilitative” purpose of the juvenile code. Our research shows it frequently does not. And regardless of jurisdiction, attorneys may argue that restitution is unconstitutional under the equal protection and due process clauses’ prohibitions on punishment for poverty or the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines.
No matter the situation, a child should never be punished because they are too poor to pay a debt, including restitution.