I have been a practicing attorney since 1994. In that time, the cost of filing a civil lawsuit has gone up over 50%, with the additional costs going to fund the court system.
But far worse has been the exponential rise in court costs that are taxed on criminal defendants. For example, in 1994, a typical Chicago DUI defendant would get a fine in the amount of $200 or $300 plus a $5 “spinal fund fee.” Over the years, additional fees have been added, supposedly to pay for clerks, state’s attorneys, police, emergency services, etc. In 2016, a typical defendant in a Chicago case pays an additional $1,339 in costs, in addition to fines. Since these costs are now so high, they are often not given a “base fine” but still the total fines, fees and costs are over $1,000 more today than they were 20 years ago. That is an increase of 333%.
It is no coincidence that the rise of these fines began after George H.W. Bush was hammered for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge. Ever since, politicians in Illinois have found it much easier to raise additional income through regressive fines and sales taxes (probably the biggest increase over the last 20 years has been on cigarette taxes, even though smokers are addicted to the product and the demographics of smokers tend skew towards low income individuals).
These costs are applied regardless of a person’s income, so that they hit hardest on the poor. Furthermore, the courts are not allowed to waive these costs or allow the defendant to work it off by doing community service.
The Illinois Statutory Court Fee Task Force has issued a report about this growing problem.
In their report they found four key problems:
- The nature and purpose of assessments have changed over time, leading to a byzantine system that attempts to pass an increased share of the cost of court administration onto the parties to court proceedings.
- Court fines and fees are constantly increasing and are outpacing inflation
- There is excessive variation across the state in the amount of assessments for the same type of proceedings.
- The cumulative impact of the assessments imposed on parties to civil lawsuits and defendants in criminal and traffic proceedings imposes severe and disproportionate impacts on low- and moderate-income Illinois residents.
- The Illinois General Assembly should enact a schedule for court assessments that promotes affordability and transparency.
- The General Assembly and the Supreme Court should authorize amendments to the current civil fee waiver statute and related Supreme Court Rule, respectively, to provide financial relief from assessments in civil cases to Illinois residents living in or near poverty.
- The General Assembly should authorize a uniform assessment schedule for criminal and traffic case types that is consistent throughout the state.
- The General Assembly and the Supreme Court should authorize the waiver or reduction of assessments, but not judicial fines, imposed on criminal defendants living in or near poverty.
- The General Assembly and the Supreme Court should modify the process by which fines for minor traffic offenses are calculated under Supreme Court Rule 529.
- The General Assembly should routinely consult a checklist of important considerations before proposing new assessments, and should periodically consult the checklist in reviewing existing assessments.
I hope the legislature gives the Task Force’s report due consideration and implements their suggestions.