The Change Needed to Stop Saddling Young Black and Brown People with Massive Debt

The practice of restitution makes it harder for overpoliced Black and brown communities to break free from the carceral system. California’s REPAIR Act is a crucial first step.

Demonstrators protest the the killing of Tyre Nichols on Jan. 27, 2023 in Memphis. (Joshua Lott / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Imagine how happy you would feel after being told you can finally go home to your family and friends after spending your 18th birthday and over 200 days in juvenile hall. This was the case for Xochtil, who was eager to start a new life and never return. She was ecstatic—that is, until she was given a $3,000 bill upon her release.

She was relieved to be back with her community, but was working tirelessly to make ends meet while simultaneously juggling a full-time course load at a community college. The carceral debt loomed over, leaving her too stressed on money to focus on the far more important issues of her re-integration, two jobs or education.

Xochtil’s story is one shared by many young people of color. Similar to adults, right now in California and in many other states throughout the U.S, in addition to being sentenced to juvenile hall, many young people are ordered by the court to pay money—otherwise known as restitution. These orders are set to help crime survivors heal. While the original goals of California’s youth restitution system are well intentioned, in reality, it’s a broken system that fails both survivors and those who have caused harm.

Originally created as a way to offer mostly white youth an alternative to incarceration, the restitution system has devolved into a dysfunctional system that stacks the odds against youth like Xochtil, who come from lower-income communities of color. In 2019, close to 90 percent of youth within this system were Black or Latinx due to racially-biased policing and oversurveillance in Black and brown neighborhoods.

Hefty restitution orders like Xochtil’s are common and saddle young people and their families with crushing debt, while failing to provide the intended relief to survivors. Public records data shows that only 20 percent of dollars ordered in youth restitution since 2010 have been collected, which means most survivors receive little to no restitution—many of whom are Black and brown as well.

Make no mistake, this is a racial justice issue that has serious implications for the state’s commitment to being a just and inclusive place. Currently, California counties employ costly and predatory collection practices against mostly low-income Black and brown youth to no avail. County data obtained by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at Berkeley Law shows that the cost of these collection practices match or exceed the amount of restitution collected.

In addition to not fulfilling its intended purpose, restitution also makes it harder for overpoliced communities to break free from the carceral system. Most young people cannot work as they are required to be in school, but for the few who can, their employment shifts focus away from school and limits their ability to spend time with family or pursue hobbies or extracurriculars that might otherwise help them avoid the system again in the future. In fact, requiring restitution has been linked to higher recidivism rates among youth.

Parents are also responsible for their child’s restitution, putting them into situations where they must make impossible choices, like paying their child’s order or keeping the lights on or a roof over their heads. If a family cannot pay, parents can be subjected to wage garnishment, tax refund interceptions and property liens—threatening the financial stability of the entire family. Interest can also be charged at 10 percent for unpaid orders.

California’s youth restitution system is in dire need of re-imagination so that it can be functional and effective. The REPAIR Act, authored by Assemblymember Mia Bonta and backed by Debt Free Justice California, does this by placing crime survivors on a secure pathway to receive accessible and timely funds through a newly formed fund. The bill would help achieve true accountability by allowing young people to make amends through participation in developmentally appropriate programming, including restorative justice circles, community service or other educational programs.

The REPAIR Act also sets an important national precedent for dismantling a carceral system that doesn’t work for anyone, and takes a tremendously disproportionate toll on Black and brown communities.

Xochtil was lucky. She became involved with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) while she was incarcerated, helping to improve circumstances for low-income Black and brown youth. For her hard work with CURYJ, Xochtil was awarded a $3,000 honorarium from The California Endowment. Instead of using this money to cover her basic needs, it went to pay off her restitution debt.

The REPAIR Act aims to help youth such as Xochtil.

“I do not want to be an exception to the rule,” she said. “That’s why I am working to ensure my peers and community members no longer get stuck in this debt trap.”

All residents of our country’s most populous state deserve a real chance at rehabilitation, and all survivors deserve timely and full compensation. Passing this bill is the first step in ensuring both things can happen, and helps set national precedent.

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About and

Arielle Rodriguez is a member of California’s Debt Free Justice Coalition. She is a recent graduate from Berkeley Law School and about to begin a position in litigation at a San Francisco law firm.
Xochtil Larios is a college student and youth justice coordinator at Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, as well as a member of California’s Debt Free Justice Coalition.