When Michael Wilson Sr. stepped out of Cook County Jail in early 2016 after spending two months waiting to bond out for failure to register his address as a violent offender against a minor—the result of an altercation with his son followed by a misunderstanding with the Quincy, IL court system—he was ready to see the last of 26th and California. But it wasn’t until his final appearance in front of the judge that he realized that, along with two years of probation, he was told that he’d been ensnared with a little-known but far-reaching tentacle of the criminal justice system: Wilson owed $1,500 in court costs and fees.
In the civil court system, they are called filing fees. In the criminal system, they’re known as court costs. In both, they’re a form of monetary sanctions that pass the cost of running the court system onto the people moving through it. The patchwork of fines and fees is levied at the county level and was initially meant to cover only administrative costs. But over the past 15 years they’ve expanded to help support law libraries, security, and children’s waiting rooms, while outpacing inflation and creating a situation that advocates say is increasingly untenable for the communities that pass through the state’s courts.
“One of the major issues with our criminal justice system is we are criminalizing poverty by imposing court costs, fines and fees on folks that are… an unwilling part of the system,” says Aditi Singh, an attorney with the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice. “It traps people in the cycle of debt that makes it incredibly difficult for low-income people to be able to satisfactorily complete all of these requirements and leave the system.”
Levying court costs is a practice around the country, but it achieved national notoriety in the case of Ferguson, MO., where the local police department funded their operations by levying fines and fees primarily on low-income black motorists for nonviolent offenses, with the threat of incarceration hanging over the heads of people who couldn’t pay, and fueling widespread anger at police.
A similar system has been working behind the scenes in Illinois, saddling court users with thousands in fees and fines, with people often choosing to pay their court fees instead of rent, child support or health bills. But what really makes the system exceptional in Illinois is its sheer complexity. “Illinois is unique in that it has 90 different court costs and fees,” says Singh. “So there are multiple agencies and entities that are involved in this process, meaning a person that is accused of a crime is ultimately interacting with all of these institutions.”
A handful of researchers are in the second year of a 5-year research project to understand just how monetary sanctions in criminal courts plays out in a few key areas, and have found stories of entire families cleaning out their savings to pay off the required payments. For those who can’t pay, they risk remaining longer on probation, and means that the legal case against them can never be fully closed, even if their have served their time.
Wilson, who has been struggling to pay off his court fees for two years, has slowly had his fines reduced over that time, from $1,500 to $400 today. But because he’s spent those two years either unemployed or taking courses to become a truck driver, he’s had little ability to pay even the reduced amount. And he doesn’t hesitate when asked what he’d rather be spending his little available money on: “I would be getting a car, paying bills. I got grandkids so I got other things I would be doing with that money,” he says.
The civil court system in Illinois has a waiver for people who are indigent, meaning in theory there is a route for people unable to pay filing fees to have the money waived. But there is no waiver system for the criminal courts, leaving people like Wilson dependent on an individual judge’s awareness of the impact of court fees.
Creating a waiver system is one of the key changes that a bipartisan coalition is moving through the legislative system. In 2013, the state passed legislation to create the Statutory Court Fee Task Force to assess Illinois’ complicated system of filing fees and offer recommendations for changes. And in March, Rep. Steve Andersson was the lead sponsor on a bill to create legislation addressing the array of fines and fees, named the Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act. (A similar bill is making it’s way through the Senate).
Two other proposed bills deal with the long-term punitive effects of unpaid fines: one strikes language in the Illinois Vehicle Code that gives the Secretary of State the authority suspend the drivers license of people owing fines to the state, while the other would allow someone to get their records sealed or expunged, even if they still owe court fees to the state.
Andersson says his bill would simplify the system by consolidating the various fees and fines under one act, change the amount of the court costs, and create a waiver for low-income people. Judges, prosecutors and county clerks have been broadly supportive of the measure, say people involved in its implementation, as the court cost and fees system is often an additional burden on their work.
For Wilson, it would be a welcome change, but perhaps not one that explained his ordeal. “If I am really honest with you, I don’t understand the court fees,” he says. “You guys decided to prosecute me, then you make me sit in jail. I’ve paid my debt to society, how much more do I have to pay?”