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Illinois Overhaul of Court Fines Leaves Minorities Struggling to Pay, say Critics

Before leaving office, former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a measure to  restructure court fines and fees across the state.

The bipartisan Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act, which took effect in July, was supposed to be more even-handed, transparent, and pertinent to the crime committed.

But the revamped system, which included waiving some fees altogether, appears to have missed the mark, say some critics, including the legislator who sponsored the measure.

Former state Rep. Steve Andersson, a Republican,  said the intent of his bill was to strike a balance “where the fees that a defendant pays are supposed to supplement their addition to the court system.

Steve Andersson

Former Illinois State Representative Steve Andersson

“It’s not supposed to finance it.”

The new law expands a state waiver program for court costs. Offenders can now get relief if they earn up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

That means someone who makes up to $50,000 a year is still eligible for a 25 percent waiver of court costs. A $37,000 income gets a 50 percent waiver. And at $25,000 in income, violators can see a 75 percent slice off the court cost.

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 were the only court cost category that went up under the new law.

That, some argue, has only amplified the original inequity of the system.

Andersson said that in addition to lowering fines and fees overall, he wanted to make a closer connection between the crime and the court cost. That would give lower income people a break on fines and fees, even if they earn four times the poverty rate.

But the traffic fine increase, he admitted, is among the reasons why the goal has “flip flopped.”

Many people in Illinois’ justice system believed the new law would result in more equity.

“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,” McLean County Judge Scott Drazewski told WGLT.

But critics say that as a result of the higher traffic penalties, the burden of financing the court system is shouldered by some of the state’s poorest residents.

A lot of low-income people have to own vehicles to work, to go to the grocery store, doctors, and the business of life. And if they are minorities, they are more likely to face the higher traffic fees.

African-American residents in the Bloomington-Normal region of Illinois, for example, are not only more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, but are far more likely to be subject to traffic offenses than whites.

Frank Beck

Frank Beck of ISU’s Stevenson Center. Photo by Ryan Denham/WGLT

“Of all traffic stops, there’s a greater percentage…of African Americans than one would expect given the distribution of the population,” said Frank Beck, executive director of Illinois State University’s (ISU)  Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development.

According to 2017 data for Bloomington, blacks made up over 20 percent of those stopped for traffic violations, yet were only 11 percent of the local population. There’s a similar, but less pronounced trend for the Latinx population.

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.

Andersson said under the old system, scores of external agencies benefitted from court fines and fees well beyond what was appropriate, and court costs climbed because the state does not pay for the legal system in all 102 counties.

In many cases, the fees bore no relation to the charge.

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.

But Bloomington Black Lives Matter leader Ky Ajayi said lawmakers who wrote the bill still 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 offenses.

Ky Ajayi

Ky Ajayi of Bloomington Black Lives Matter

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,” he said. “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.”.

As a result, Ajayi continued, low-income offenders often miss work, and face a corresponding long-lasting impact on their finances.

Fines as a Deterrent

But not everyone agrees with critics of the increase, which includes a steep hike in fines and fees for driving under the influence. Many believe that the increase—to $1,700 for a felony DUI and to nearly $1,400 for misdemeanor DUI-—makes sense as a deterrent.

The higher fines make it more likely that the court system will see that money, contends 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,” said Costigan.

“They don’t want it to be suspended in the future. They want to make sure that everything is taken care of. Are they going to pay those? I think probably the answer is yes.”

Still, Tristan Bullington, an attorney with Meyer Capel in Bloomington, argued even the lower amounts of some court fines and fees “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,” he said.

Bullington worries that fees do little to prevent bad behavior.

“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 of whether the new Illinois law, particularly the provision relating to traffic offenses, has an unintended consequence.

It may keep people in poverty by making it more expensive when they do have a traffic violation.

 This is a condensed and edited version of the first two parts of a three-part WGLT series about court fines and fees in Illinois. Read and listen to part one here.The second part can be accessed here.  The series was prepared as a reporting project for the John Jay/Arnold Fines & Fees Justice Reporting Fellowship.