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Monetary sanctions tracked in nine states, including Illinois

Report: U.S. lacks single coherent set of laws governing imposition and enforcement of legal financial obligations

EVANSTON - Monetary sanctions have always been a part of the U.S. criminal justice system, and a new comprehensive report looking at nine states, including Illinois, finds that the United States lacks a single coherent set of laws, policies or principles governing the imposition and enforcement of legal financial obligations.

Northwestern University scholars Mary Pattillo and Brittany Friedman wrote the Illinois section of “Monetary Sanctions in the Criminal Justice System,” a report to the Arnold Foundation, which found that the impact on a person’s pocketbook depends largely on his or her location on a map.

In Illinois, the variation of monetary sanctions exists even across counties. For example, the fee for people convicted of a felony in Cook County is $190, but it is only $80 in Kendall County.

The report reviewed financial punishments, law and policy across California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Washington — nine states that account for more than one-third of the nation’s 2.2 million incarcerated people and home to the more than 40 percent of people in the U.S. who are under community-based supervision.

“Illinois falls somewhere in the middle of the nine states included in this study in terms of financial punitiveness,” said Pattillo, the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.

“For example, in Illinois it would take eight months, at the low end, to pay off the court costs for driving with a suspended license if you paid $50 a month. In Texas, it would take as few as two months, whereas in California it would take at least 31 months,” Pattillo said. “We found this kind of wide variation again and again. The question is: Where does Illinois want to fall in terms of binding people to the criminal justice system for extended periods of time?”

According to the researchers, Illinois is one of many states in the process of taking a hard look at the fees and other costs associated with criminal justice contact. In 2013, the Illinois legislature passed the Access to Justice Act, which created the Statutory Court Fee Task Force. The Task Force’s 2016 report was strongly critical of the current system of monetary sanctions, referring to it as a “byzantine system.”

Monetary sanctions include fines, court fees, restitution, surcharges and even interest on unpaid sanctions. They can be imposed for offenses ranging from traffic violations and misdemeanors to felony convictions. Though these types of financial punishments have a long history in the United States, state and local governments have been imposing monetary sanctions with increasing frequency over the past 30 years.

“We found at least 435 Illinois statutes that govern the assessment of fines, fees and other courts costs,” Pattillo said. “The expansion of this revenue source has gone far beyond funding the criminal justice system to include new stakeholders,” including the Trauma Center Fund, Roadside Memorial Fund, Fire Prevention Fund and others.

Pattillo said this broad set of interest groups will make it even more difficult to roll back these practices.

According to the University of Washington’s Alexes Harris, lead author of the study, increased nationwide incarceration rates since the 1970s have contributed to increased sanctions. 

“States have had to look for ways to fund that,” Harris said. “And starting in the 1990s, states have created statutes to increase fines and fees or create new ones.”

Usually, the offense, rather than the person’s ability to pay, determines the amount of the monetary sanction. The national research team found that judges and other officers of the court often have little leeway in imposing monetary sanctions. In Washington, judges can waive interest payments on certain fines once the principal has been paid. Missouri courts are advised to consider a person’s ability to pay when imposing certain fines. But these are exceptions. And in general, these sanctions cannot be revoked — only paid.

“Similar to other states, Illinois punishes offenders using both discretionary and mandatory fines,” said Friedman, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Northwestern. “In effect, judges must sentence mandatory fines even if it is apparent the defendant lacks the necessary financial resources. Hopefully, the state’s current attention to monetary sanctions will include a re-evaluation of relief mechanisms for the poor.”

The burden of these rising costs falls disproportionately on low- and moderate-income defendants. The Illinois legislature has recognized these facts in recent years, the researchers said, adding that the June 2016 Statutory Court Fee Task Force Report is a major step towards uncovering a system of legal financial obligations that had been opaque and widely uneven across jurisdictions.

The full report is available online.

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