By Sarah Weld
Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic has been at the forefront of a successful nationwide movement to eliminate juvenile legal system fees and fines in as many states as possible. Now the clinic, long focused on removing these regressive costs that drive people further into poverty, is fighting against another kind of financial charge holding people back — restitution.
“Young people and adults in both the juvenile and criminal system face a variety of costs. So, even though we’ve had success in eliminating fees, and to some extent, fines, restitution is still a huge burden on people and their families,” says Stephanie Campos-Bui ’14, assistant clinical professor of law and director in the clinic.
In California, people convicted of crimes are often ordered to pay restitution to compensate crime survivors for any harm caused, whether it be for stolen or damaged property, medical expenses, or other types of financial loss. The clinic found that the average restitution amount is about $10,000.
Most people assessed this restitution can never afford to pay it, often resulting in two things: they live with that debt — which can range from hundreds to sometimes millions of dollars — for the rest of their lives, and crime survivors receive little to no money. Like the fees charged to youth and adults in the juvenile and criminal legal systems, which saddle families with long-term crushing debt, restitution and its consequences often prevent people from securing a stable job or housing.
“For most people, restitution is not something that’s just going to be difficult to pay off, it’s something that a person will never pay off. What’s worse, they will be treated as a second-class citizen for as long as that debt remains, and systematically denied the tools and opportunities that might allow them to actually pay it,” says Clinical Supervisor Delaney Green, who wrote her master’s thesis on restitution at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. “The sheer scale of restitution is so incredibly high that it has become one of the biggest pain points for people involved in the criminal legal system.”
The clinic has recently taken on restitution in full force, spotlighting the issue in California and nationwide. Over two days last November, it co-hosted the first national conference on youth restitution with Juvenile Law Center and the National Center for Youth Law, gathering about 100 researchers, academics, and advocates exploring alternatives to restitution charged to young people.
“We were able to learn from youth who are directly impacted by restitution about the harm it has caused them and their ideas for policy change. We also learned that the current restitution system is really broken for all parties across the country, not just in California,” says Clinical Supervisor Rachel Wallace.
The clinic’s public policy students have contributed notably to research on the topic. Like Green, Wallace and clinic alumni Marcia Garcia and Georgia Valentine also wrote their master’s theses on restitution.
Then in February, clinic faculty and students represented the Debt Free Justice California coalition on a bill that would allow people to clear their criminal records even if they still owe restitution. Senate Bill 1106 has passed the Senate and the Assembly and awaits the governor’s signature.
If the bill passes, it would be the first significant step in reducing restitution’s long-term negative effects. Because the California Constitution mandates restitution, a formal amendment would be required to remove it. Thus, reform efforts in recent years have focused on reducing harm against those ordered to pay restitution while advocating for stable and reliable funds for victim compensation programs.
Clinic alumna Rianna Modi ’22 helped work on the bill as a student last year. “Working with the clinic showed me how restitution is falsely framed as essential to support crime survivors, despite having little actual benefit and causing economic harm,” says Modi, now a first-year associate at Hogan Lovells focusing on healthcare regulatory work. “The experience motivates me to educate fellow lawyers and policy makers on the reality of restitution so that we can create more equitable public policy serving as many members of the community as possible.”
A bill the clinic worked on last year eliminated the 15% administrative fee and 10% interest that were previously authorized in all orders of restitution and restitution fines. SB 1106 would further ease the burden for people trying to reintegrate back into their homes and communities.
“The Policy Advocacy Clinic continues to move forward policy changes based on what people most impacted are saying they need and want — and for years that has been changes in restitution,” says Danica Rodarmel ’17, a clinic alumna and consultant to the coalition. “The clinic is the glue that holds the coalition together and has led on all of the deep research and data collection that continues to support us. We are going further, doing more, and exploring bigger solutions than anybody else in the country at this point.”
Like the clinic’s groundbreaking work on eliminating juvenile fees, its initial work on addressing restitution is already setting an example for other states.
A broken system
While restitution is intended to compensate crime survivors for economic loss, it not only wreaks havoc on the lives of people ordered to pay but also leaves many survivors empty-handed.
Arabella Guevara, a youth organizing fellow with the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Jose, was ordered to pay $60,000 in restitution for damages to a car that she stole from an elderly man in Santa Clara County. Wanting to understand “what had happened in her life that brought her to that night,” the man visited her while she was in a juvenile hall seeking a promise from her that she would work toward “righting her path.”
Hoping to escape a volatile relationship with her mother, Guevara ran away from home at 13 and was in and out of juvenile facilities for the rest of her teenage years. Now 19, she pays $100 per month to the state, money that could otherwise pay for four packs of diapers and three sets of baby formula for her newborn child. “I have to pay for a crime that I’ve already paid for, and I can’t afford it,” says Guevara. “It’s like society has deemed us as unworthy of redemption.”
“Put simply, the current system of restitution is not serving anyone,” Wallace says. “Due to targeted policing and the simultaneous disinvestment in communities of color, restitution has had dire consequences for people of color, particularly Black Californians who are ordered to pay restitution at disproportionate rates. Yet another manifestation of anti-Blackness in this country, our current restitution system is only deepening the racial wealth gap.”
Green, recently a panelist on a state commission evaluating criminal justice reform efforts, agrees: “What is bad for the accused or defendants is not necessarily good for survivors. By refusing to clear someone’s record who owes restitution, you’re not helping the person who they are trying to pay. The fate and benefit of those two parties are intertwined. That’s a really hard thing to accept because every narrative we’re given is there’s a perpetrator and there’s a victim, and that’s not the actual reality when those economic fates are tied the way that they are.”
Those looking to reform the current restitution system point to revising the role of the state’s Victim Compensation Board, which currently pays limited claims to survivors only if they never received their restitution payments. But survivors must navigate a complicated and burdensome process to get paid by the state, and often find they are ineligible for payments.
Campos-Bui, Green, and Wallace say a better system to help relieve people of harmful debt would rely on stable state funds to compensate survivors — and emphasize non-monetary approaches to accountability and healing between survivors and those that have caused harm, such as restorative justice and Indigenous peacemaking programs.
Along with its new emphasis on restitution, the clinic continues its pathbreaking work on juvenile fees and fines. With the support of several national funders, the clinic formally launched the Debt Free Justice campaign last fall to abolish legal system fees and fines imposed on youth and families across the country. This year, the campaign continued to make progress in states as diverse as Arizona, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington.
In addition to the restitution bill currently on the Governor’s desk, the clinic supported two other legislative campaigns in California this year to eliminate civil assessment fees and make all phone calls in state prisons and local jails free.