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Mounting Court Fees and Fines: A Threat to Equal Justice
Ballooning court costs imposed on the poor are unfair and costly to administer.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Special to
by By Ali Abid

Cook County imposes a panoply of fines, fees, and costs in relation to proceedings and convictions in its criminal courts. These include the costs associated with electronic monitoring bracelets, probation fees, "reimbursement" fees to police and prosecutors, drug testing costs, and participation in court-ordered programs, among a number of specialty funds created by the legislature.

These fines, fees, and costs support a system in which the poorest members of our society are subject to repeated court appearances and, potentially, additional jail time. Once caught in the cycle (having fines, fees, and costs imposed; being unable to pay; having additional fines, fees, and costs imposed), it is very difficult for these defendants to escape the criminal justice system, regardless of their original crime. In addition, evidence suggests that the imposition of fines, fees, and costs paradoxically results in mounting administrative costs to collect (increased court dates, inefficiencies in the criminal justice system, more people in jail for a longer time, etc.) that greatly outpace the money that is brought in.

It wasn't always this way. On the contrary, the transfer of the costs of the criminal justice system to defendants is a recent shift, based on seeing court fines, fees and costs as an added revenue generator for states as well as private debt collection agencies. According to one source, up to 85% of people returning from prison today owe some form of criminal justice debt, compared to 25% in 1991. This shift has been noted not just in Chicago, but throughout the country; from New York City to Ferguson, Missouri.

Here at the Collaboration for Justice--the joint research and advocacy effort of Chicago Appleseed and the Chicago Council of Lawyers--we have developed a project aimed at tackling this issue. Working with our staff and the Collaboration's Criminal Justice Advisory Committee, we are addressing this matter in three critical ways:

*Creating a guide to the current fees, fines, and costs and Cook County and correcting mistakes on materials currently used to better inform Judges and other practitioners which costs are discretionary and which can be waived upon a finding of indigence.

*Examining the legality, or lack thereof, of imposing such hefty financial demands on individuals and extending their stay in the criminal justice system because of it, and formulating what challenges can be made under Illinois law and U.S. Constitutional law

*Conducting a great array of interviews of individuals who are going through and working in the criminal justice system to gauge the impact this money-making phenomenon has had on defendants, their families, and the system itself.

At the end of this project, we plan to make recommendations that are practical and effective in reversing the trend Cook County has seen over the last two decades. As ever, our goal is to maintain the integrity and fairness of our court system, and we believe that the current trajectory it has taken of instilling practices that discriminate and punish on the basis of economic status enervate the principle of justice. Our methods as always, is not simply to point fingers but to develop solutions and work with government agencies and to help them better adhere to best practices and the law.


Ali Abid is Staff Attorney and Criminal Justice Policy Analyst at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice.

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