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Criminal restitution orders leave juveniles languishing in debt

When we think of people being ordered to pay restitution to the victim of their criminal act, we typically picture that victim being an ordinary person who lost valuables in, say, a burglary. We imagine the restitution is directly tied to the criminal behavior, with simple justice requiring the victim to be repaid. It's often a lot more complicated than that.

For example, in one Arizona case, a 15-year-old boy damaged his parents' car while driving it without permission. There was no need for criminal charges, but the insurance company refused to pay unless the parents agreed to prosecute their own son. It then sought restitution from the boy.

Or consider the example of a Maine teen. He fought back against a bully, injuring him in a fist fight. A court ordered him to pay $12,347.33 to the insurance company that covered the bully's medical bills.

"These are children in poverty making payments to multimillion-dollar corporations, under the threat of jail," said a spokesperson for the Juvenile Law Center, a legal advocacy group. In other cases, it's still a child struggling to pay off a victim who is usually an adult.

According to the Marshall Project, the large majority of kids caught up in the juvenile justice system are from poverty. Yet 30 states allow juvenile restitution to insurance companies. And, only a half-dozen states cap the payments based on the juvenile's ability to pay.

Inability to pay restitution can have oversized consequences

Juvenile defendants are often assessed a variety of fines and fees related to their offenses -- often regardless of their ability to pay. Of all the added costs in the juvenile justice system, restitution is usually the largest.

When the restitution is not paid, the juvenile case remains open, sometimes for years after the defendant has served their time. That means they can be subjected to continued probation (and fees), GPS monitoring (and fees), random drug tests (and fees) and warrantless searches. They can even be sent back to jail for small probation violations.

The Marshall Project also found that juveniles who can afford restitution are sometimes offered better plea deals, which partially explains why wealthier kids spend less time in juvenile facilities.

Some advocates for juvenile restitution argue that it's only responsible for juveniles to pay the full consequences of their actions. Otherwise, they may end up making even more costly mistakes.

Yet restitution for a juvenile mistake is a harsh punishment if it keeps kids trapped for years in both poverty and the juvenile justice system, unable to contribute to society.

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