Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part WGLT series this week about court fines and fees in Illinois. Read and listen to part one.
A new law restructuring court fines and fees in Illinois is supposed to be more even-handed, transparent, and pertinent to the crime committed. Some don’t think it is succeeding in those aims.
The Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act standardizes fines and fees across the state. The bill’s chief sponsor, former Rep. Steven Andersson, said he also wanted to lower fines and fees overall and make a closer connection between the crime and the court cost.
Lower income people can get a break on fines and fees, even if they earn four times the poverty rate.
There is a catch. Waivers don’t apply in traffic cases—the only court cost category that went up under the new law.
McLean County Judge Scott Drazewski said it’s set up like that for a reason.
“It would appear that the goal of the legislation was to collect more money by imposing fines and assessments upon individuals that have the ability to pay those fines and assessments imposed,” he said.
Drazewski isn’t alone in that thinking. Three judges in McLean County tell WGLT wealthier people are more likely to commit traffic offenses than those who are poor. They base that judgment in part on the significant cost of owning a vehicle.
But the idea that owning a vehicle in our society is optional is debatable. A lot of low-income people have to own vehicles to work, to go to the grocery store, doctors, and the business of life. Mass transit might not be feasible for them.
And some believe hiking traffic fees and preventing waivers amplifies court inequity.
Racial Disparities In Traffic Stops
Frank Beck is the executive director of Illinois State University’s Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development.
“Of all stops, there’s a greater percentage of those stops that are of African Americans than one would expect given the distribution of the population,” Beck said.
He said African American residents in Bloomington Normal are not only more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, but police are far more likely to stop minorities for traffic offenses than whites.
According to 2017 data for Bloomington, blacks made up over 20% of those stopped for traffic violations, yet were only 11% of the local population. There’s a similar, but less pronounced trend for the Latinx population.
Data for blacks in the Town of Normal parallels that in Bloomington. African American residents made up over 18% of those stopped, but less than 9% of the population.
Police stopped Latinx residents in Normal at a rate lower than their population.
In both the city and town, Beck said the Stevenson Center’s report shows that whites are stopped at a percentage lower than their population rate.
“No matter the community, it’s disproportionate in the sense that it’s African Americans who are stopped more often,” he explained. “And they may be stopped for speeding violations, it could be an equipment violation, could be tags on a license plate, could be lots of different reasons. But it’s disproportionate.”
Statewide data show similar disproportionate enforcement by race in many communities.
Beck said that calls into question the rationale for making traffic offenses ineligible for fine and fee waivers.
Lasting Impacts Of Court Costs
Bloomington Black Lives Matter leader Ky Ajayi said lawmakers who wrote the bill fell short of their intentions to create a fairer system.
Ajayi said punishment remains unbalanced between classes, even with declines in fines and fees for most categories of non-traffic offense.
He said even small traffic fines can be devastating to low income people, while high income people can pay and be done.
“So they were speeding, but because of a technicality and the high powered lawyers, they get off. But the less wealthy individual who is pulled over for speeding is locked up because they can’t pay the fine to get out of jail and it drags on for a week or two,” he said.
As a result, Ajayi said low-income offenders often miss work. That can have a long-lasting impact on finances.
But McLean County Court Administrator Will Scanlon said driving is a privilege, not a right.
“If a person, regardless of where they live in the community, racks up 15 driving offenses, they're going to have 15 different fines to pay and those aren't going to go away. And they'll have subsequent issues retaining their driver’s license, retaining employment and having problems,” Scanlon said. “That is a problem of their own making.”
Under the Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act—even before the fine—a major traffic offense carries a $325 fee and a minor traffic offense $226.
Tristan Bullington, an attorney with Meyer Capel in Bloomington, argued even the lower amount “could create havoc” for Bloomington-Normal’s low income residents.
“If they choose that they’re going to pay their court fines instead of their rent, it may lead to an eviction,” Bullington said. “They may decide that they’re not going to pay their car bill that day, and so their car gets repossessed, and now their car is re-possessed and they can’t get to work. They can’t work, they can’t pay the rent, and now they’re getting evicted.”
Bullington said the purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish, not to ruin someone’s life over what is often a minor offense.
“This is not to say I’m excusing their criminal behavior and they shouldn’t pay the consequences over those things, but I think there are sometimes unforeseen consequences.”
The Case For High DUI Fees
He said it’s a different story for DUI offenses.
The Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act set the fee for a felony DUI at $1,700 and a misdemeanor DUI at nearly $1,400—two of the highest fees under the new law. Bullington said that makes sense.
“DUIs are one of the few crimes that you see committed quite often by people with means,” Bullington said. “We want the fines to hurt because we don’t want you to commit DUIs.”
He said that’s why the financial cost of a DUI is so often advertised on billboards and in commercials.
And by increasing fines and fees for DUIs, the court system is more likely to see that money, according to Casey Costigan, a McLean County judge.
“You look at somebody who’s charged with a DUI and look at that number there. Well, they want their license back. They don’t want it to be suspended in the future. They want to make sure that everything is taken care of,” Costigan explained. “And so are they going to pay those? I think probably the answer is yes.”
The offender is punished for driving while under the influence and the court is more likely to get its funding, so Costigan said the structure works.
But low-income people own cars and have traffic violations. Census data show 80% of people with incomes below the poverty line own vehicles. And about 90% of those with income levels twice the poverty mark own a vehicle.
Bullington is less certain.
“We’re not using any of this to be rehabilitative,” Bullington admitted. “So, we may end up, I think, at times making the problem worse instead of preventing the problem from recurring.”
Bullington said prevention should be everyone’s goal, not patchworking the system of fines and fees to finance the courts.
There are data from a variety of sources including the American Dream Coalition suggesting car ownership helps people get out of poverty. Which raises the question whether the new Illinois law has an unintended consequence of keeping people in poverty by making it more expensive when they do have a traffic violation.
Editor's note: This is part two of a three part series. Check back on WGLT Thursday for part three of the McLean County Fines and Fees series and hear from national sources about how Illinois's Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act matches up to other states' fines and fees systems.
This series was prepared as a reporting project for John Jay/Arnold Fines & Fees Justice Reporting Fellowship.
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