A state law that took effect July 1 could help curb the costs of court fees and fines that disproportionately affect minorities and impoverished people.
The Traffic and Criminal Assessment Act offers criminal defendants in Illinois the chance have court fees waived or partially waived. These fees are tacked on to misdemeanor and felony sentences and distributed to state and local agencies. It also helped establish flat rates for filing and appearance fees in civil cases.
McHenry County’s use of court fees and costs has been debated before. In February 2016, attorneys Ray Flavin, Jim Kelly and Matthew Haiduk sued McHenry County, claiming fines collected by the county’s 22nd Judicial Circuit were unconstitutional and defendants had been improperly charged millions of dollars.
The suit was dismissed in July 2016, but steps toward reform already were underway.
On June 1, 2016, a Statutory Court Fee Task Force found court costs in Illinois often were disproportionate to the actual penalty fine for a given offense. Constantly increasing court fees and fines also tended to outpace inflation and varied between counties, according to the report.
After a bench trial in April, Nancy Pahlman of Round Lake Beach was ordered to pay $344 on a $75 fine for driving 10 mph above the speed limit.
The additional money was distributed to other agencies. Thirteen dollars went to the county’s Child Advocacy Center, $10 went to a specialty court mental health program, and $60 was applied as a traffic or criminal conviction surcharge, records show.
At trial, the judge found Pahlman not guilty of a felony drug possession charge, which she’d been paying a private attorney to help her fight for more than a year. The new law’s fee waiver options can’t be applied to traffic offenses, which typically result in only financial penalties.
People who find themselves still owing court costs might find their money is going to agencies more closely related to the offense they were convicted of. Unlike in previously years, people also will know exactly how much they owe before they’re sentenced, McHenry County Circuit Clerk Kathy Keefe said.
The 2016 research showed that the Illinois court system “heavily relies on an excessively complicated court assessment system” that disproportionately affects low- and moderate-income people and people of color, according to an August 2018 Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority report.
According to the report, court fines and fees had the potential to affect defendants’ and litigants’ ability to meet basic needs.
“In some cases attempts to collect on individuals’ debts may end up costing government more than it would receive in actual recuperation and collection of those debts,” according to the report. “Additionally, governments also contract with private debt collection agencies which authorize significant additional costs.”
Keefe was one of the 15-member task force that recommended changes in the state’s previous cost assessment system.
“It’s just much more cut and dry as to what your court costs will be under the statute,” Keefe said.
The new law establishes a flat amount of money a defendant can be charged in addition to any financial penalty a judge might impose. It also allows civil litigants and criminal defendants the chance to waive their costs and fees either partially or in full.
“I think it definitely is a step in the right direction. The addition of the criminal waivers is certainly helpful in that,” Keefe said.
Under the new law, a person convicted of a felony drug charge in any part of the state, for example, could be ordered to pay $2,215 in additional court costs. Other sentencing factors such as substance abuse treatment credit, community service and time served also can offset some of those costs, Keefe said.
The new assessment structure, not including fee waivers, expires Jan. 1, 2021, to allow enough time to determine whether the new law can continue to support the many agencies that receive funds from criminal, traffic and civil fines, costs and fees, Keefe said.
The Child Advocacy Center, for example, received $13 in additional court costs for every civil, criminal and traffic case in the county. Now the agency will receive only $10 from each misdemeanor or felony defendant, Keefe said.
Although some service providers such as the CAC stand to lose money as the new law is implemented, the county should never have put those agencies in a position where they were relying on funds from people within the court system, Flavin said.
“Those two should never have been connected,” he said.
Flavin agreed the Traffic and Criminal Assessment Act is a step in the right direction, but ideally would like to see even more costs eliminated, he said.
“The problem is that this is just an alternative taxation to people and some people can’t pay it at all,” Flavin said.