SPRINGFIELD – Court fees and fines in Illinois have become bloated over the years with surcharges to pay for programs and services, resulting in steep increases to what people pay in civil and criminal cases, according to a new report.
Sometimes the added surcharges fund things unrelated to a case, such as law libraries, zero-interest loans for fire departments to buy new trucks, and waiting rooms for children while their parents are in court. In a recent case in central Illinois’ McLean County, for example, a DUI offender paid $1,742 in fees distributed across 25 state and local funds, including a Children’s Advocacy Center and a Fire Prevention Fund. Only about 8 percent of what was paid went to actual court costs related to the case.
And the amounts people pay vary widely from county to county. In southern Illinois’ Macoupin County, a DUI costs $344.
The findings come from the Statutory Court Fee Task Force, which was created by the Illinois Legislature. The group released its report in late June after a yearlong study by lawmakers, circuit court clerks and judges who were part of the 15-member panel. The report highlights another aspect of the swollen bureaucracy in Illinois, a state with the most units of government in the nation – everything from park districts to counties and townships.
“What happens is every special interest group, if you will, has a really good idea and they say, ‘My very good idea will only cost a $5 filing fee,” said Republican Rep. Steven Andersson, a lawmaker on the task force. “And no one really tallied them up.”
As the state has struggled financially over time, the fees have become an enticing way to pay for things. But the special interest additions are not the only reason for the growth and county-by-county difference in fees. Not every county adopts every fee, and the state gives local governments some discretion in setting them by allowing wide minimum and maximum ranges. Base fee amounts also vary depending on a county’s population size.
The report did not calculate the total amount the state has collected from the fines and fees.
Andersson acknowledges he’s responsible for contributing to the rising fees without having a clear picture of the final tally. Last year, as a freshman legislator, he sponsored legislation that passed to allow Kane County to impose up to $30 in civil and criminal matters for the construction of new judicial facilities.
The task force Andersson was a part of made several recommendations to lawmakers to overhaul what the report calls a “byzantine system” of fees that has expanded over more than a decade, codified in more than a dozen places in the state’s law books.
“They’re just spread all over the place so there’s nothing cohesive or understandable about it,” said Rep. Elain Nekritz, a Democratic lawmaker and member of the task force.
Other report findings:
• In Kane County, the maximum fee to file a civil case grew from $220 in 2000 to $358 in 2015, a figure that can near or exceed dollar amounts at stake in a small claims dispute, the report said. And those are just base figures, not counting state and local add-ons for special programs.
• In DuPage County, the fees paid for a DUI skyrocketed from $300 in 1995 to $2,172 in 2015, with the number of add-ons increasing from nine to 27.
• The price of filing for divorce depends on where you live. For example, it’s $548 in Cook County, $487 in Will County and $280 in Knox County.
Nekritz and Anderson are writing legislation to introduce next year based on the task force recommendations, including combining the fee and fines guidelines in one statute for consistency and clarity and allowing for more fee waivers in civil cases depending on someone’s income.
Andersson said they also will consider eliminating some of the add-on fees. But he said it won’t be easy, given what various interests stand to lose.
“That will be the heaviest part of the lift, quite frankly,” he said.