On Wednesday, Gov. Mills signed into law L.D. 1304: An Act to Ease Financial Burdens for Juveniles Involved in the Justice System. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Donna Bailey, establishes additional protections for juveniles when a judge orders them to pay restitution as part of their sentence. Additionally, this law, which will go into effect in September, will help ensure that financial obligations will not continue to haunt juveniles well beyond their involvement in the system and into adulthood.

Under current law, a judge can order juvenile offenders to pay restitution in any amount, over any length of time. In principle, restitution is meant to compensate victims for the actual financial loss they suffer because of a young person’s offense. In practice, although intended as a public good, unchecked, uncapped and inconsistent restitution orders are often levied against youth, making it harder for them to get back on their feet, and in some cases leading to more and harsher punishments being imposed on them down the road.

This system, as it existed, was inherently flawed because it failed to consider the economic hardships most system-involved young people face. Whether incarcerated or not, most juvenile offenders lack the resources, contacts, or community supports to gain and maintain steady, good-paying jobs. Because currently the vast majority of juvenile records in Maine aren’t sealed and too many records aren’t confidential, both youth who have been incarcerated at Long Creek and youth who have other obligations due to their juvenile records struggle to find employment that would allow them to afford basic necessities and make restitution payments.

One formerly incarcerated student, who was ordered to pay about $3,000 in restitution, is finding that amount to be a serious obstacle in his attempts to successfully re-enter society and get an education. While working more than 40 hours a week and saving for both tuition and housing payments, the student has applied to and been accepted at a local community college program that begins this fall. Annual in-state tuition for full-time students at this school is about $2,800. In addition to finding a way to pay for his education and housing, this student must also make his ordered restitution payments. If this young man is unable to afford his tuition, he will not be able to achieve the goal that he has worked so hard toward. If he cannot afford to pay his restitution obligations, he may be found in violation of his probation and returned to Long Creek Youth Development Center or held at the Cumberland County Jail.

For this young man who has worked so hard, who spent two years incarcerated at Long Creek and who wants to better himself and pursue an education, this restitution order casts a long shadow on his future.

This law, which is long overdue, will protect youth in many ways. Specifically, the law will now presume that youth under the age of 16 lack the capacity to pay restitution and will require judges to consider a panoply of “youth-centered” factors when determining a young person’s ability to pay. Additionally, the law will authorize judges to – upon a change of circumstances and with input from the victim – modify, reduce or eliminate restitution obligations, and permits them to order community service work in lieu of restitution. These changes will help judges ensure that the purposes of the Juvenile Code – namely, rehabilitation of the juvenile – are better realized. Giving judges the power to consider the youthfulness of an offender, and the ability to modify restitution orders will improve outcomes for young people and their communities.

In addition to L.D. 1304, the Maine Legislature has passed legislation allowing for the immediate sealing of juvenile court records, established a task force to find and fund alternatives to incarceration, and has discussed bold policy proposals calling for a minimum age for prosecution and incarceration. These are positive steps in the right direction. Increased public awareness on issues involving juvenile justice, coupled with the fierce advocacy of youth advocates, including students at Maine Law’s juvenile justice clinic, is truly making a difference. We need to continue this reform and carry this momentum forward to ensure brighter, healthier futures for all of Maine’s children.

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