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WGLT's Mary Cullen produced this three-part series on court fines and fees, focusing on a new state law and how it's playing out in McLean County. It features interviews with stakeholders across the court system, including judges, lawmakers, administrators, and those calling for more reforms.This series was prepared as a reporting project for John Jay/Arnold Fines & Fees Justice Reporting Fellowship.

League of Women Voters Study: Criminal Justice Fines And Fees Are Crippling Working Poor

Arthur Haynes speaks
Ashley Binkowski
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WGLT
Arthur Haynes is an entrepreneur, west side Bloomington advocate and a Housing Authority board member. But, Haynes told a forum Wednesday night, he can't run for elected office in Bloomington because of unpaid court fines and fees.

Arthur Haynes says he is a rehabilitated man--a civic leader and entrepreneur, but someone who can’t run for elected office to represent his community because he still can’t get out from under court fines and fees that accumulated over 15 years.

Haynes is a Bloomington Housing Authority board member and started the West Market Street Council and serves as its president. His philosophy is "do something that means something.” Yet, when Black citizens of Bloomington recruited him to run for mayor, he couldn’t because he still owes $8,000 in fines and fees from unpaid penalties from a felony DUI and related traffic and criminal offenses, some dating back to when he was in college.

During a League of Women Voters of McLean County forum on fines and fees Wednesday night, Haynes explained it took 12 years to recover his driver’s license. The cost of his fines and fees escalated when a McLean County judge sent his unpaid assessments to collections. Retired McLean County Judge Lee Ann Hill pointed out once the unpaid balance is sent to a collection agency, it automatically adds 30% to the fines and fees that are owed. 

“To this day, I still have fines and fees that I’m paying to multiple credit agencies that my fines and fees were sent to. I’m still dealing with the negative credit impact it’s had on my credit reports,” said Haynes. “There are so many lingering effects: the health issues, the stress, the depression, housing issues, employment issues. It forced me to start my own business. That was the only way I could take care of my family.” 

Former McLean County Public Defender Brian McIntyre, who now works for the state Appellate Defender’s office, said people of color have found themselves paying fines and fees following a wrongful arrest and impoundment of their vehicle. He represented a Black woman from Wisconsin who was arrested and had her car towed simply because she didn’t have a front license plate and was driving with a Wisconsin driver’s license, both of which are not illegal.

McIntyre said the woman had to pay as much as $500 for an impounded vehicle, plus added "storage" fees for every day she couldn’t afford to retrieve her car.

“Once we proved that she should never have been stopped in the first place, she got about half of it (money she had to pay for her car) back, not all of it; she got just the part she had to pay to police and even that was an additional hurdle that I couldn’t help her with,” he pointed out. Public defenders are not appointed to contest fines and fees.

McIntyre noted the 2019 bipartisan Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act, a reform law that streamlined and standardized fines and fees, also allows for a waiver or a sliding scale for those with incomes up to 400% of the federal government's poverty levels. However, the final legislation left out that waiver for traffic offenses that require a court appearance.

Retired McLean County Judge John Freese, who served on the Illinois Supreme Court-appointed  Statutory Court Fee Task Force, said after an exhaustive three-year review the task force recommendations that served as the foundation for the 2019 reform law included waivers for fines and fees for traffic. But the General Assembly had its own ideas for the final legislation.

A 'Revenue Generating Area'

Freese observed, “It’s obvious the legislature decided this is a revenue-generating area and a large number of traffic cases are in our courts--a high percentage of traffic cases of all levels--but that’s an area that needs to be corrected when the legislature takes a look at this.” 

Freese is referencing the Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act that will expire at the end of the year.The bill will need to be reauthorized and could be revamped by the Illinois General Assembly.

One provision eliminated the penalty of suspending a driver’s license for non-payment of fines and fees.  However, attorney McIntyre is quick to point out, “While they cannot suspend your license for failure to pay fines, they (the courts) don’t have to give it back until they’re all paid off.”

Author and longtime criminal justice reporter Edith Brady-Lunny has seen the crippling economic impact of exorbitant fines and fees, with compounding penalties for non-payment. It threatens many people's financial security and the welfare of their families, she said.

“We have a modern day debtors’ prison by allowing fines and fees to bury people. The punishment is never really over for people across this country. It not only keeps them from their current opportunities, but wipes out their future opportunities as well,” she shared.

The League of Women Voters McLean County has been studying fines and fees, and the study group has some suggestions for local action the full membership will consider before taking a formal position. Those include asking Bloomington and Normal governments to eliminate the discretionary fees charged to impound vehicles that are $500 in Normal and $400 in Bloomington, according to Study Committee Chair Laurie Bergner.

The Study Committee also recommends a ban on sending unpaid fines and fees to collection agencies. Bergner points out that not all counties in Illinois do that.

Additionally, the group said state legislators need to be pushed to make permanent the Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act and amend it to include traffic fines and fees in the waiver process when it is reviewed before it sunsets.

Hill said, “The fines and fees in traffic cases affect the working poor more than anyone. One infraction can snowball to them losing virtually everything. They can’t provide for their family anymore because they can’t drive their car to work. ... They can’t keep that job, they can’t drive their kids to school or daycare and then the collection calls would start.” 

Bergner knows allowing traffic fines and fees to be waived is an uphill battle because there’s a bigger issue that needs to be addressed. Trisha Crowley from the League of Women Voters from Champaign County agreed.

“I think the basic issue is that the state is not adequately funding the justice system, so each initiative and ‘doing good’ program seeks its funding through a (traffic) fee. We need to address this basic issue or fees will just creep up again and again.”

McIntyre echoed the sentiment. 

“Addressing only the symptoms will never cure the underlying disease,” he said.

Bergner highlighted, as an example, that a felony DUI costs a little more than $1,700 but the fines and fees fund many unrelated initiatives such as child protection, the state police and its merit board, and county jail medical costs, among others.

The practice violates recommendations from the Statutory Court Fee Task Force and recommended guidelines from the Illinois Bar Association that stresses fines and fees imposed for an offense should be directly related to the burden on the court system to address the specific violation.

According to the Satutory Task Force, “Other operations of the courts should be substantially funded from general government revenue sources.”

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