Imagine you’re the victim of a crime. A 15-year-old breaks into your home, steals a bunch of stuff and damages your property. The kid is arrested, charged and sentenced. A judge says the youth must compensate you for those losses, and the bill comes to $5,000. Most likely, you’ll never see more than a few hundred dollars — if that.
The teenager? They may or may not be locked up. Either way, the debt will remain on their record indefinitely, possibly forever, because few juveniles can come up with thousands of dollars in restitution.
Get a job, you say? Even fewer of those cycling through our court system have the kind of education that leads to a salary sufficient to pay off these hefty fines, and their criminal histories push those jobs out of reach anyway.
“There is no way to get blood from a turnip,” as one Idaho judge put it in 2019, puzzling over the problem of charging low-income kids with restitution.
It’s not like they can turn to their parents, since the vast majority of teenagers processed in juvenile court come from low-income families. (A fair number don’t even have families — not in the sense of legal responsibility — as about 25% of kids doing time in juvenile prisons were previously in foster care.)
The upshot? A criminal justice system that provides very little justice — to anyone.
By the end of 2022, victims of juvenile crime in King County were out a cumulative, all-time total of $23.5 million, according to analysts at the Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic. The average amount paid, per case, in the past five years: $677.
In our system, crime victims are almost never “made whole.” Meanwhile, the young people who have hurt them reenter society saddled with a load of debt they have little ability to pay off. (Average fines levied in King County between 2018 and 2021 hovered around $1,500. But some judges have ordered restitution as high as $37,000 or even $63,000 for a single case.)
Legislators are considering proposed laws that confront this no-win scenario. House Bill 1432 and its companion, Senate Bill 5474, would end court-ordered restitution for juvenile crime. Instead, a statewide compensation fund would be established to more reliably reimburse victims.
The Senate bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, says crime victims currently receive about 12% of the restitution they are promised. By some calculations, it actually costs more to chase down debtors than the state collects from them. This is the definition of waste.
Known as Legal Financial Obligations, or LFOs, these debts tend to pop up in background checks whenever youths apply for a job, and they definitely pose a problem for any kid seeking a loan to buy a car to get to said job.
This makes no sense. It’s also counterproductive. If we want young people who have committed crimes to change their lives and get on a better path, saddling them with an impossible debt only hinders that goal.
No question, the brutal callousness of crime — and our feeling of helplessness in the face of it — demands some kind of answer, some accountability. Mostly, people want those who have caused harm to understand that pain. But flat punishment never creates this kind of self-reflection, much as we might wish otherwise, only deeper resentment and alienation.
“At 15- or 16-years-old, you’re not really thinking about your victims,” Percy Levy told me. He would know. Levy, now 52, has been in and out of locked cells since he was 12 years old. He won a compassionate release from Gov. Jay Inslee at the beginning of the pandemic. But as a kid, he said, “There was no sympathy, no empathy. I just thought of myself. Restitution doesn’t create accountability because juveniles just don’t think that way.”
Not without someone to guide them. Along with nixing juvenile restitution, Sen. Frame’s bill, which was written with help from a coalition of advocacy groups, proposes that judges order up to eight hours of community service instead of fines. That hardly seems sufficient if the goal is to encourage a deeper connection to community. But it’s headed in the right direction.
Meghan Grace would support it. Grace, who is transgender, broke into a car at age 14, looking for somewhere safe to sleep. Between court fines, fees and restitution to the car owner, Grace’s bill came to nearly $3,000, about two-thirds of which has been paid off, they said.
Still, 13 years later, Grace works the graveyard shift at a Jack-in-the-Box to stave off collections agency bills for the remaining $974. It shows up as a looming weight whenever Grace, a parent to two children, applies for housing.
“At what point has the person suffered enough?” asked King County Superior Court Judge Theresa Doyle in 2015. “As a society, we need to ask whether high LFOs make penological sense. Do they serve any of the purposes of sentencing?”
Lawmakers in an increasing number of states have determined that the answer is no. Not because they’re soft, but because research strongly suggests that fines and fees actually increase recidivism, pushing kids deeper into crime in order to avoid debt collectors. Washington is among only 10 states where juvenile court judges still mandate restitution.
The bills targeting this thorny problem are not perfect. But make no mistake, it’s brass-tacks practicality — not bleeding heart liberalism — that should push us toward shaping them into law.
This column was updated with the full name of the Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic.
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