By Betty Márquez Rosales, EdSource
Xochtil Larios entered adulthood with a $3,500 restitution debt to her name after years in the foster and juvenile justice systems. She was determined to move forward, but the restitution debt from a crime she was charged with as a teenager felt insurmountable.
The debt impacted her “mentally, physically, financially, spiritually, and I couldn’t sleep at night,” said Larios. “I can’t worry about who I’m becoming because I still have to fix my past.”
Assembly Bill 1186 proposes an end to youth being charged restitution fine – an amount owed by those who are found to have committed a crime and then paid to victims of that crime. Rather than charging youth, AB 1186 proposes requiring the California Victim Compensation Board to pay the restitution to crime victims directly and immediately. The bill is currently on the suspense file in Senate Appropriations and will be addressed by September.
Public records data analyzed by the Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, supporters of the bill, found that only about 20% of youth have paid restitution charges between 2010 and 2021. The clinic is based out of the University of California, Berkeley.
The policy clinic’s data from 36 counties showed that over 97,000 youth were ordered to pay restitution during the same timeframe, and they estimate that statewide the total is approximately 146,000 youth.
If not paid, restitution can eventually be garnished from wages, property liens, and other means; plus parents are often jointly liable, even if their child passes away.
“We think of crime and youth violence and youth crime as a systemic societal issue that’s the responsibility of society to correct,” said Rachel Wallace, interim deputy director at the advocacy clinic. “If we’re not giving youth the opportunities to succeed and they’re turning to cycles of violence or cycles of crime, that’s something that is a societal problem that we should all be investing in.”
AB 1186, introduced by Assemblymember Mia Bonta, includes alternatives to youth paying the restitution themselves, such as participating in an educational or employment program. The average restitution amount, according to Wallace, is about $1,500 but they have worked with youth who’ve owed as low as $400 and as high as $60,000.
Restitution orders are mandatory in a case where someone is found legally liable and another is harmed — unless the judge finds “compelling and extraordinary reasons” for removing or reducing the amount. Judges have discretion over the amount and there is no cap. A variety of factors should be considered when determining the amount, per state code, including the seriousness of the offense. Crime victims can share a list of their monetary losses due to the crime and must provide receipts or other documents of proof.
The state’s most recent annual report, released December 2022, from the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, which was established by the governor and legislature, mirrored the proposed bill in recommending the creation of a state-fund to pay crime victims immediately. In fact, it was the first item listed in a list of 10 recommendations.
Research on restitution is limited but existing data shows “the majority of restitution” goes unpaid to crime victims, according to the state committee.
“Researchers have explained that the low collection rate is due to the fact that restitution orders are overwhelmingly issued to a population uniquely unable to pay — indigent defendants, many of whom are unemployed, have unstable housing, mental health and substance abuse issues, and are presently or recently incarcerated,” wrote the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code in their most recent report.
The California Victim Compensation Board, which crime survivors often turn to and is funded both publicly and by restitution charges, declined to comment for this story.
The only listed opposition is from the California District Attorney Association. In a statement submitted to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations to be addressed during a hearing in April, the association highlighted the lack of “a mechanism for payment.” They also stated that the “bill would limit a victim’s right to seek and secure restitution” given that “not all crimes qualify for compensation” through the state’s compensation board.
Some crime survivor organizations, such as Californians for Safety and Justice, are in support of AB 1186, along with at least two dozen other organizations statewide
The proposed bill “provides a pathway for timely resources and opportunities for healing that the current restitution system fails to provide. It also offers young people evidence-based alternatives to learn from their mistakes and avoid harming others in the future,” wrote Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, in a recent commentary.
If the bill makes it through the legislative process this fall, it would only end restitution paid by the youth. The actual funding of the bill, which is estimated to reach about $12 million annually in restitution amounts plus additional ongoing staffing costs, would be decided in a future legislative cycle.
Larios was living in Northern California’s city of Hayward when she first entered the foster care system at age seven after a domestic violence dispute in her home. She was homeless and couch-surfing over the years that followed and was first detained at the age of 12.
For the rest of her teenage years, she was in and out of the juvenile justice system, with her last detainment being her longest. Larios was 17 years old and living in a car by herself. It was then that she committed a crime, the details of which she declined to share. She was charged with a misdemeanor and detained for over 200 days at the Alameda County Juvenile Hall.
Upon release, she was determined to make a permanent change in her life and move forward from the instability of her youth. She was expected to get a job, pass her driver’s license exam, attend school, and build a strong foundation for adulthood — but she needed to achieve those goals while also paying down thousands of dollars in restitution on her own.
“Juveniles are set off to be pioneers, leaders, start joining the workforce, education, but [the justice system doesn’t] think about the weight, the heavy stuff that we’re carrying,” Larios said, referring to the difficult upbringing she lived through.
Larios credits the Oakland-based organization Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, or CURYJ, with helping her remain on track after her release. She learned about them while detained in Alameda County and then pitched herself for a job once she got out. She’s worked with them for five years as a youth justice coordinator, supporting research development and leading training on youth rights, among other things.
With CURYJ as part of the support system that helped her access stable housing and transportation after her release, she returned to school and applied for financial aid and scholarships. About eight months later, she was awarded one of those scholarships, which totaled close to the amount of restitution she owed.
“When I received that email: ‘Hey, congratulations you won an award,’ to me, it was very, very emotional because it was like, ‘Oh wow, I can pay this debt,’” said Larios. “This is the money that I can use to pay off my debt… instead of using it for educational purposes.”
She has gone on to graduate with her Associate’s degree in Social Science from Oakland’s Laney College. But it was difficult, she said. “If I had money saved up instead of paying debt like restitution, I would have been more well-rounded in my education.”
Larios paid off her restitution about four years ago. Yet any form of ticket, even as small as a parking meter fine and completely unrelated to restitution, brings up memories about where she was in life at the time of her last arrest.
“I should be celebrating that I parked somewhere because I’m doing something good,” Larios said. “It gets really emotional because [any fine] just reminds you, again, of the crime and not so much the healing part. It might be healing for the family, but I’m human too.”
Betty Márquez Rosales is a reporter for EdSource, where this story first appeared.