WASHINGTON — Arabella Guevara spent much of her adolescence paying for her mistakes.
She entered the juvenile justice system at age 13, after she ran away from home for the first time, hoping to escape a volatile relationship with her mother. Before long, running turned into petty theft, then carjacking and house breaking into. It cost her nearly two years spent in and out of juvenile facilities, and many additional months for her still tied to the system through parole.
When his last term of probation ended last year and his criminal record was sealed because he had just turned 18, “it was like a whole chapter of my life had closed,” Guevara said in an interview. “I was free.”
But before long, he began receiving monthly reminders that the opposite was true. Bills totaling $60,000 in restitution owed for her crimes began pouring in, drowning the teen in debt just as she had begun trying to get back on her feet.
Ms. Guevara, now 19, is one of thousands of teens and young adults across the country who pay restitution imposed by juvenile courts to compensate their victims for losses and damages related to their crimes. . But a new report examining the practice He claims that many are paying for a broken system, one that often derails the lives of the young offenders the juvenile system was created for, while delaying or even denying compensation to its victims.
The report, released Thursday by the Juvenile Law Center, a legal aid and advocacy group in Philadelphia, sheds light on a rarely examined process through which juvenile offenders can become trapped in a perpetual cycle of debt to society. .
Ms. Guevara has been out of parole for over a year; she has had no encounters with the police. She is the mother of a newborn child and works in a defense organization in his hometown of San Jose, California, helping at-risk youth stay out of the criminal justice system.
“I have to pay for a crime that I already paid for and I can’t pay for it,” Ms. Guevara said. “It is as if society has deemed us unworthy of redemption.”
While imposing similarly heavy fines and fees on juvenile offenders and their families has drawn the attention of lawmakers in recent years, advocates and lawyers say the restitution system has proven more difficult to reform. That’s partly because that system is based on a false premise, they say.
“The theory of restitution is to make the victim whole, and there is also supposed to be a lesson for the child that their actions have consequences,” said Nicole El, deputy chief of the Children and Juvenile Justice Unit at the Philadelphia Public Defender’s Office. “What it does in practice is financially handcuff children and their families.”
The Juvenile Law Center report, which examined juvenile restitution laws in all 56 states and US territories, does not quantify how many juveniles owe restitution from one year to the next. But it found a patchwork of policies that the report’s authors described as “justice by geography”, burdening destitute youth with little or no income with debt that many will never or will never pay off. And while the system was created in the 1960s as a way to offer mostly white juvenile offenders an alternative to jail, it now places a huge burden on poor youth of color, who are overrepresented in the system. of juvenile justice.
All juvenile courts across the country have the right to order restitution, usually imposed for crimes such as property damage and theft, but how amounts are determined varies greatly, as does enforcement, according to the report.
Eleven states and territories require restitution when quantifiable damages are assessed, while the rest leave it to the discretion of a judge. Only five states and three territories limit the restitution a young offender can be ordered to pay, according to the report. Those who can’t pay end up facing a variety of penalties, including jail time, extended probation and the inability to expunge their records, which can keep youth enmeshed 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 youth until they turn 28, and can extend a restitution judgment for an additional 10 years for collection purposes.
But the report also pointed to an equally troubling result: The system rarely works as intended for crime victims themselves. In the states that report restitution collections, none reported more than a third of such payments actually collected. A study cited in the report found that up to 77 percent of all restitutions ordered go uncollected.
Fourteen jurisdictions mandate that restitution be paid to third parties, such as government agencies and insurance companies, while others require youth to pay state victim compensation funds, which many victims have difficulty accessing.
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 “restoration process” for crime survivors, it also believes that “imposing high costs of restitution on minors involved in justice may unintentionally cause more harm by creating barriers to release and services.”
“Furthermore,” the statement said, “we know that most youth who are involved in justice have histories of trauma and victimization, and a large financial obligation can cause even more harm. We would encourage communities to engage with both survivors and youth involved in justice to determine a process that is fair and restorative for all parties.”
The Juvenile Law Center advocates for various reforms, including alternatives such as diversion programs with a restorative justice and expand eligibility for state victim compensation funds.
Maine law approved in 2019 that reformed its child return system and it’s working, legal experts say. The new statutes now mean that people under the age of 16 cannot pay restitution, allow a juvenile offender’s restitution to be reduced or eliminated if their circumstances change, and require payments to go directly to victims instead of corporations like insurance companies.
As a result, juvenile offenders in their 20s have been able to drop out of the juvenile system after their restitution balances were paid off, said Christopher Northrop, a clinical professor at the University of Maine School of Law who also runs a legal aid clinic. who helped champion 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 removed 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 School of Law and director of the Maine Center for Youth Law and Policy.
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 found can present crippling obstacles for young people as they transition to adulthood. They can face wages garnished, including from their commissary accounts while in juvenile detention and their paychecks when employed.
Some laws allow unpaid restitution to accrue interest and become a liability, which in turn can wreak havoc on credit scores and other important public records.
Ultimately, according to the report, “this means that a child from a well-to-do family who can easily pay restitution wipes the slate clean when they leave the system, while a child from a poor family has a history of involvement with justice.” juvenile for no reason other than poverty.”
In some states, like California, where Ms. Guevara lives, the financial responsibility falls on the parents if a young person cannot pay.
Since leaving the juvenile detention center, Ms. Guevara has been living with her mother from time to time; although her relationship has remained rocky, they have survived homelessness and eviction together, and Ms. Guevara did not want to burden her further.
After receiving notices threatening to take them both to court, he started paying the state $7 a month, which is what he can afford while working part-time for $20 an hour and paying his bills.
Your restitution payments are supposed to cover medical bills for injuries a victim sustained when she tried to stop Ms. Guevara from stealing her car; fees to change the security systems and locks on the homes she invaded; and damage to the cars she stole.
The “you do the crime, pay the fine” philosophy is pervasive in the courts, advocates say, but it undermines the very point of a system that is supposed to be redemptive, rather than punitive, as the criminal justice system is. adults, said Mrs. He said.
She and other public defenders often find themselves performing a balancing act in trying to defend their clients, she said, many of whom come from households earning less than $10,000 a year. “We don’t want victims to pay thousands and thousands of dollars, we are people like everyone else, but we also represent children,” said Ms. El. “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.
Additionally, state-reported data reviewed by the Juvenile Law Center shows that victims seeking restitution from juvenile offenders are rarely successful in collecting it. For example, in a 2017 study conducted in Alabama, only 15 percent of restitution fees related to juvenile cases were ultimately collected.
Ms. Guevara said she often thinks of her victims, particularly an elderly man whose car she stole. She later found out that he was a retired sheriff. He visited her in a juvenile facility and was so disturbed to see her in shackles that he asked for them to be removed from her.
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 led up to that night, and a promise from her that she would work to straighten out. . path.
These days, he said, keeping that promise feels increasingly elusive.
The two-bedroom apartment that Ms. Guevara shared with her mother and four other people felt overcrowded recently, and tensions began to rise. Determined not to expose her child to the tumult that characterized her own childhood, she found herself on the move again.
The same week he became homeless, his restitution rose sharply to $100 a month or, according to Ms. Guevara’s calculations, four packs of diapers and three packs of baby formula.
“I was doing good, I was just trying to do the right thing, and it’s not good enough for them,” he said. “It’s like he’s locked up again.”