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High restitution orders sending juveniles into poverty, despair

At 17, Sophie M. accompanied her then-boyfriend when he burglarized an upscale home in Maine. She hadn't participated before, but she had accepted gifts that she knew probably came from other burglaries. Her childhood had been bleak, including homelessness and violence. She had never felt wanted before by anyone.

Her participation in that burglary cost her almost three years in juvenile hall, where she was the victim of a serious assault. After she got out, she was rearrested for failing to appear at a restitution hearing. Because she was deemed an accomplice in all of her boyfriend's burglaries - even the ones she had nothing to do with - the court ordered her to compensate the victims for the full amount of their losses, which was $2,831.69.

It took Sophie years to pay this off, and she found herself homeless as a result. Worse, the victims had probably already been compensated through insurance.

Thirty states allow juveniles to be ordered to pay restitution to insurance companies, and that may actually result in more criminal charges filed than would be otherwise.

For example, according to the Marshall Project, one 15-year-old boy was prosecuted after he drove his parents' car without permission and damaged it. Their insurance company refused to pay their claim unless the parents agreed to press charges. Why? The charges allowed the company to pursue the teen for restitution. He ended up repaying the insurance company for the entire claim.

Restitution orders are meant to promote accountability

Around the country, it's routine for juveniles to be ordered to pay restitution for property damage, lost wages and medical expenses, the Marshall Project found. This is often done without regard for the young person's ability to pay. A half-dozen states place caps on restitution payments, but elsewhere the amounts quickly add up to thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars.

It makes some sense to require restitution, as it gives the guilty party a sense of what their victim lost as a result of their behavior. Successfully paying off restitution can even give the offender a sense of having made things as right as possible.

But the actual dynamics at play are not as rosy. In reality, kids from poverty-stricken backgrounds make up the vast majority of juveniles in the justice system, according to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

When the victim of the crime is wealthy or an insurance company, we're faced with an uncomfortable reality: Poor kids working full-time for years to pay off much wealthier individuals and entities. In a better world, we would rather see juvenile offenders reform by going to school and making plans for a responsible life.

Or consider the story of another 15-year-old who was bullied at school. He fought back and injured the bully in a fist fight. As a result, he was prosecuted and ordered to pay the bully's health insurer $12,347.33 for his medical treatment. How does that reflect any sort of justice?

Pennsylvania should reconsider its use of restitution

The Marshall Project says that Maine is considering changes that would reduce the burden of restitution on former juvenile offenders. It would allow judges to reduce or eliminate these payments upon a finding that the offender's financial circumstances had changed. It would also allow juvenile offenders to pay off part of what they owe through service work.

These changes may not be enough, but they allow for some hope when a restitution order seems unpayable. Should Pennsylvania adopt similar changes? What more would you suggest?

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