The Collaboration for Justice—the joint social justice effort of Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and the Chicago Council of Lawyers—has released a report on the impact and legality of court fines, fees and costs. The report details how the recent trend of shifting court costs to low-income and indigent defendants is creating a cycle of fines, fees and increased jail time that inevitably costs the court more in administration and enforcement than it collects. The report, its attachment A (chart of mandatory and discretionary court costs, fines, and fees), and the executive summary, are available.
The Administrative Office of the Illinois Court has convened the Statutory Task Force on Court Costs, Fees, and Fines which has been examining the efficacy and impact of imposing fines, fees and costs of low-income individuals. We look forward to their recommendations and next steps, and hope that our report becomes part of the resulting discussion.
Our report—completed with assistance from Chicago Appleseed staff, the Collaboration for Justice’s Criminal Justice Advisory Committee, and pro bono attorneys at Baker & McKenzie and Loevy & Loevy—shows that up to 85% of people leaving prison owe some form of criminal justice debt, an alarming increase compared to 25% in 1991. There are approximately 90 different fines, fees, and costs imposed by Illinois criminal courts. With no current limits on the number of these that can be imposed on a defendant, the amounts can reach thousands of dollars, an impossible sum for most defendants.
In a system where 75% of defendants charged with misdemeanors and 80% of felony-charged defendants are indigent and entitled to court appointed counsel, this is unconscionable and unsustainable. It also may be unconstitutional. The Illinois Constitution bans the imposition of any fine that does not serve the purpose of rehabilitating the defendant, meaning that fines imposed in order to generate revenue are unconstitutional.
Illinois law does not require trial courts to impose payment of discretionary fines, fees and costs as a condition of probation or conditional discharge. Neither is payment of mandatory fines required as a condition of probation or conditional discharge. Therefore, our report suggests reforms based in urging judges to exercise their discretion to not impose fines, fees and costs on low-income and indigent defendants, and revising the statutes, court rules and fee structures in order to rationalize and reduce the number and amount of fines, fees and costs that can be imposed on any defendant. We also recommend ways to improve courts’ process for determining a defendant’s ability to pay.
Reform would permit indigent defendants to complete the terms of their probation or conditional discharge without unpayable debts. It would reduce the over-incarceration of the poor and increase defendants’ ability to successfully reintegrate into society and become productive members of the community. It would reduce administrative costs associated with futile collections efforts and enhance confidence in the courts as places for justice, not for profit.