Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part WGLT series this week about court fines and fees in Illinois.
Critics have said the legal system hurts low- and moderate-income people more than rich ones. Fines and fees can pile one upon the other and hurt the ability of poor people to access transportation, employment, and even basic shelter. That was supposed to change this year.
Before leaving office, former Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act into law. The bipartisan reform measure took effect in July.
The new law is supposed to change Illinois court fines and fees across all jurisdictions. Former state Rep. Steve Andersson sponsored the measure. The Geneva Republican said he had four goals at the top of his list. The first was to lower fines and fees overall.
“There’s a balance there that was originally intended to be struck where the fees that a defendant pays are supposed to supplement their addition to the court system. It’s not supposed to finance it,” Andersson said. “What has happened is that has flip flopped.”
He said financing the court system is now on the back of the defendants who participate in the process.
Andersson said he thinks taxes should fund the court system because it is a function of state government. He said the state does not pay for the legal system in all 102 counties, which is how court costs got to be so high.
He said scores of external agencies benefitted from court fines and fees well beyond what is appropriate.
“The fees needed to relate to the charge that they’ve been accused of, or that they’re involved in,” Andersson said.
For example, under the previous law, traffic offenders who paid fines and fees to McLean County would pay more than $16 to the Children’s Advocacy Center—whether the crime they committed involved children or not.
Andersson called it a tax on the biggest volume court system: traffic court.
He says under the new Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act, fines and fees must relate to the crime.
There are more than a dozen categories of fees or "scheduled assessments" in addition to fines. The law breaks down all costs imposed on people into local and state justice systems.
Here’s the local breakdown. The circuit clerk gets at least $25 of each. Around $50 goes to the court, and the county general fund gets a cut, too, between $47 and $300.
The state share of fees depends on the crime. A felony drug convict has to send $1,500 to the Drug Treatment Fund. Sexual offenders put $200 toward Sexual Assault Services for each conviction.
McLean County Judge Scott Drazewski said most fees went down when the system switched to these schedules, but that traffic offense fees went up.
“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,” Drazewski said.
The new law expands a state waiver program for court costs. An offender can now get relief if they earn up to 400% of the federal poverty level.
That means someone who makes up to $50,000 a year is still eligible for a 25% waiver of court costs. A $37,000 income gets a 50% waiver. And at $25,000 in income violators can see a 75% slice off the court cost.
Judge Drazewski said the court can’t look at debt or assets to determine fees.
More residents are qualifying for waivers than before, but there’s a catch—a big one. Traffic offense fines and fees are not eligible for any waivers, regardless of income. And traffic fees went up under the law.
McLean County Chief Judge Mark Fellheimer said it’s not ideal, but “that’s the legislation.”
“Certainly, if someone comes in and wants an extension and is making a good faith effort to pay their fines and costs, certainly, at least from my perspective, I’ll do whatever I can to extend that out for them,” he said.
Fellheimer said the law is mandatory, and they have to follow it.
McLean County Court Administrator Will Scanlon says the philosophical reason lawmakers raised fines and fees for traffic offenses is because driving is a right, not a privilege.
A misdemeanor DUI carries a $1,300 fee. A felony DUI is $1,700. Scanlon compared those assessments to the $550 fee for a murder conviction. That doesn’t include other fees related to the conditions of the crime, but Scanlon said the base fees are vastly different.
He said the person who committed murder qualifies for a waiver but will likely get jail time. The person found guilty of a felony DUI is on the hook for those funds regardless of their income and won’t get their driver's license back until they pay up.
McLean County Judge Casey Costigan said the court is more likely to get the traffic money, because the offender wants to resume driving. That is, unless, they are low income and can’t pay.
Andersson said he also wanted his bill to make court costs more transparent. Andersson said under the previous system, offenders had no idea what they had to pay until their first appearance in court. Under the new Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act, Anderson said it’s easier to do the math at home before deciding how to plead.
Andersson said the only unknown is the fine for the crime itself.
Judges set the fines. The new law has minimum fines but leaves it up to the judge to choose a fine that “fits the crime.”
Scanlon, the court administrator, said the minimum fine for traffic offenses is $25. All others have a minimum of $75. Scanlon said under the previous law, minimum fines were $1.
“One-dollar fines could still result in $200-plus worth of costs,” he said. “So, people still had sticker shock as it were when they heard $1 fine and they still ended up paying $215 on their offense.”
Creating A Uniform System
Addressing that problem gave way to Andersson’s fourth goal for the law: making court fines and fees system uniform across the state.
He said before, a traffic offender pulled over on one side of the street might have to pay hundreds of dollars in court. And if a cop pulled them over on the other side of the road in a different jurisdiction, the cost might be a lot lower.
All of these are big changes. People coming into court still might not know their potential costs, even if they did know the drill under the old system. Judges in McLean County say public defenders have the job to educate defendants.
“It is going to take time just like any other change in the law to educate the public,” Fellheimer said. “So that’s the best we can do.”
Fellheimer said implementation in McLean County is going well. Costigan agreed because “McLean County was ready.”
“Have there been some things we’ve had to adjust? Yes, there have. And those adjustments have gone fairly smoothly,” Costigan explained.
But the virtues of clarity, transparency, simplicity all can be undone. And it doesn’t take long. Remember, the new law took effect in July. The legislature and governor have already approved two new measures that add fines and fees: the Scott’s Law violation and the Roadside Memorial Fund.
The judges say they will continue to update courtroom procedures as lawmakers change them.
Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part series. Check back on WGLT on Wednesday for part two of the McLean County Fines and Fees series and hear about what problems the Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act doesn’t address.
This series was prepared as a reporting project for John Jay/Arnold Fines & Fees Justice Reporting Fellowship.
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