Even after bipartisan efforts to improve the system of court fines and fees in Illinois, some believe it places disproportionate burdens on low income people in Illinois and can contribute to poverty.
Lisa Foster is co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national organization that tracks court costs around the U.S. Foster said Illinois’ Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act may look like it could work on paper, but in the real word not so much.
“Generally speaking, the fact that judges now can waive and reduce fines and fees for criminal offenses and can consider up to 400% of poverty is great,” she said. “But, by excluding traffic, you’re excluding a huge number of people who are caught in the justice system and for whom even traffic fines and associated fees jeopardize their economic security.”
Joanna Weiss, co-director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, adds that many traffic offenses are often the entry point into the legal system.
“People start out with a low-level traffic offense that nobody feels should result in jail time or perpetual punishment, but because enforcement is so heavily done in poor communities and communities of color, you end up with many people who can’t afford to pay,” Weiss said. “Especially as government is relying heavily on fines and fees as a means of generating revenue.”
Even a small fine can have long lasting impacts on low income residents. Ky Ajayi, a leader of Bloomington’s Black Lives Matter, said one unpaid fine can increase time without a driver's license or result in jail time. And the more time passes, Ajayi said, the harder it is for the offender to find money to pay the court costs.
“So for even a minor traffic violation, $226, at Illinois minimum wage is 27 hours of work,” she explained. “So you’re asking people who are working at minimum wage—that’s assuming that they’re working—to give up almost a week salary or income for a speeding ticket.”
Excluding Traffic Offenders From Waivers
McLean County judges say excluding waivers for traffic offenses is a way to fund the court system.
Other provisions of the reform measure did reduce fines and fees, tied them closer to the offense instead of funding unrelated agencies, and offered waivers for low income people.
The act’s sponsor, former state Rep. Steven Andersson, called leaving out traffic offense from waivers a “practical” choice.
“That is such a large volume court, the clerks felt that if we apply the waiver to the traffic court system, the system would become unmanageable,” Andersson explained. “Because then you’d have to have a hearing for so many cases that at this stage, they felt that would just be unmanageable from a paperwork standpoint.”
Andersson said lawmakers drafting the bill “had to face a reality.”
Ben Ruddell, an attorney with the ACLU of Illinois, differs with Andersson. Ruddell said courts exist to create justice, not to make the job of those working in the system easier.
“They’ve got it backwards,” Ruddell said. “The rules and the laws of the state of Illinois are not here to make the courts jobs easier and to reduce the amount of work that they have to do. That’s not the goal.”
Ruddell said it’s time to find a better public policy solution.
“These fines and fees are perverting courts’ ability to do justice,” he said. “So, the fact that some clerks think that it’s too much work to allow judges to waive financial assessments for low income people who are suffering because of these assessments, that’s just unacceptable.”
Illinois Ranks 10th
In states like Illinois where the state does not fully fund courts, fines and fees are a common way to pay for court operations.
Lisa Foster with the Fines and Fees Justice Center shared statistics from a recent Governing magazine report which found that:
- Illinois has 33 jurisdictions that derive over 10% of their revenue from fines, fees, and forfeitures
- 11 jurisdictions that derive over 20%
- Four jurisdictions that derive over 30%
- One that derives over 50%
“That makes Illinois certainly, in fact, No. 10 in the country among states that derive a significant percentage of revenue from fines and fees,” Foster said.
Foster said there are 70 jurisdictions in Illinois that earn more than $100 for every adult resident in fines and fees.
Fines And Fees Solutions
She said there are better methods to fund court systems. Foster noted a 1990s pilot program that proved when fine and fee amounts are scaled to offender income, people are more willing—and able—to pay.
Foster said the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked interest by states and municipalities on the issue of fines and fees.
A week after Brown’s death, a report found the city of just over 21,000 people brought in $2.6 million in fines and fees in 2013. That’s $124 for every adult resident in Ferguson.
The report added fuel to the existing protest over racial aspects of Brown’s killing. Foster said media coverage may have scared some jurisdictions into finding a better funding option.
In 2017, for example, Foster said Texas passed a law regarding “fine-only cases” where the maximum penalty is a fine with no possibility of incarceration. She said Texas judges must assess an offender’s ability to pay before sentencing.
“If they determine that the person cannot afford the amount of fines and fees that would ordinarily be imposed, the judge can waive, reduce the fines and fees, convert the fees into community service, put a person on a payment plan, or any combination of those things,” Foster explained.
She said within one year, Texas saw the amount the courts collected went up even though the overall fines and fee amounts went down.
“That’s, we think, because when people can actually imagine paying the amount that’s imposed because it’s based on their economic circumstances, and you give them a reasonable payment plan and a way to do it, they do,” Foster said.
Foster said when payment feels impossible, offenders are much more likely to throw their hands up and walk away because they know it is out of reach. When that happens, the court often gets no money at all.
San Francisco provides another example. Foster said the west coast city eliminated a range of fees and implemented a low-income payment plan. She said the city collected almost three times as much in court costs.
Steps Towards Change
Foster said jurisdictions often don’t give the policy a chance because on the surface it looks counterintuitive, and after so many years of things “just being that way,” many jurisdictions are reluctant to change.
Foster’s co-director has a more controversial explanation why counties, states, and municipalities don’t embrace income-based fines and fees. Joanna Weiss said the issue lies in the model of self-funded courts.
“When you have actors in the court whose salaries are dependent on money coming in from fines and fees, they’re terrified of making any changes that are going to affect their budgets,” Weiss said.
She said no one in the court should have their paycheck tied to the fines and fees they assign to offenders—despite it being a common practice across the U.S.
Mark Fellheimer, the chief judge for McLean County, said raising funds for the courts is not on any judge’s mind; they’re just doing their job.
“When I impose a fine or I impose an assessment, we impose what’s appropriate, we deal with ability to pay as part of that, as well as a waiver,” Fellheimer said. “It's touchy to say that if we're judges are involved as far as the system itself, yes, we are, but I don't view it as as we're attempting to collect money for the court system.”
Fellheimer said the law itself was not written by judges, and they have to abide by the statute.
He said a judge’s primary concern is implementing the law as intended, which he said McLean County’s judges are doing well.
Supporters of change might have another bite at the apple.
The new Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act that took effect in July is a trial run. It sunsets after a year and a half. The Illinois General Assembly will review court revenue data next spring to see whether policy makers think the law is working.
This series was prepared as a reporting project for John Jay/Arnold Fines & Fees Justice Reporting Fellowship.
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