October 2015Volume 103Number 10Page 12

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Requiring criminals to help fund Illinois justice - fair or foul practice?

A recent report cast a critical eye on the widespread practice of charging "user fees" to defendants in the Illinois criminal justice system.

A recent report by Brian Mackey of Illinois Issues discloses several surprising statistics about Illinois' criminal justice system. (See Paying for Justice at http://wuis.org/post/illinois-issues-paying-justice.) While many people are aware that convicted criminals can be charged fines and ordered to pay restitution to their victims, a wide range of fees are charged to criminals, Mackey reports. In some cases, even accused-yet-exonerated defendants pay these fees, which are used to help pay for everything from DNA tests to drug treatment assessment.

The fees are used to fund the criminal justice system. Critics say the charges can keep financially troubled individuals in a cycle of poverty and imprisonment. Proponents say charging criminals a fee is fair play - a part of their debt to society.

According to a 2009 report from the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law cited by Mackey, a Cook County resident convicted of class four felony drug possession faces a minimum of $1,445 in financial obligations. (View report at http://bit.ly/1KnGRAh.) Although the fine for the felony conviction accounts for $500 of the total, the rest comprises fees.

These amounts are not fixed and do not include fees associated with probation and those charged by jails and prisons. Because the majority of criminals have limited financial resources, these added fees are often not collectible. However, their imposition can prevent convicts from making a smooth transition back into society.

According to a study from the Brennan Center for Justice cited by Mackey, 1 in 35 adults were incarcerated at the end of 2013. See https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/charging-inmates-perpetuates-mass-incarceration. As incarceration rates have increased, the costs associated with the criminal justice system have also increased. Illinois, like many other states, has turned to charging criminals fees in an effort to recover some of those costs.

Some fees are surprising, Mackey reports. For example, Illinois, the District of Columbia, and 42 other states allow fees for the use of a public defender. The 2013 Annual Report of the Illinois Courts indicates that 16 counties did not charge public defender fees. On the other hand, Lake County collected seven percent of its public defender budget from criminals, or almost $344,000. Even those acquitted of a crime can be charged for the defender's services.

Mackey describes how a criminal with $3,165.50 in fees would be burdened by the obligation to repay that sum. Employed at a job paying Illinois's minimum wage, the individual would have to work almost 384 hours to pay off the balance. This number does not account for the cost of living, taxes, and other realities of life.

Barriers to reentry

According to the Brennan Center's report, these fees can become a barrier to successful reentry into society. In some cases, family members end up paying the fees, shifting the burden away from the criminal. If fees cannot be collected, the programs that rely on them can suffer from the lack of funding.

In fact, collecting the fees can be a challenge for court personnel. Mackey writes that the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts produces a 500-page manual entitled, Manual on Fees and Fines, which is designed to help local officials track the funds coming from the clerks' offices. Even with that guidance, 92 percent of clerks report that collections significantly increase their workloads.

In some counties, collection efforts are less aggressive than others. St. Clair County public defender John O'Gara told Mackey that collection efforts in his county "kind of went by the wayside" even after the county hired an outside law firm to handle collection efforts. In other counties, such as Champaign County, officials work with third-party collection agencies that specialize in collecting government debt. Failing to pay fees won't result in an individual's probation being revoked, but it may be a factor when considering revocation for other reasons.

Conditioning release, at least to some extent, on the payment of these fees has some observers concerned, Mackey reports. David Olson, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago, believes that focusing on collections may be the wrong idea. Instead, probation officers should focus on things that help reduce recidivism, such as helping convicts seek substance abuse treatment. He questions the efficacy of trying to collect fees from criminals. "Is it really worth the effort given the population we're targeting?"

Matthew Hector
Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Sulaiman Law Group, Ltd.

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