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.