Debt Arising from Illinois' Criminal Justice System: Making Sense of the Ad Hoc Accumulation of Financial Obligations
A person who has done time in prison or jail often finds that he still owes a debt to society. Well known are the collateral consequences that abound in areas such as employment, housing, and voting rights. Debts for people with criminal records, however, are not only figurative. Literal debts can also come from the numerous financial obligations imposed within the criminal justice system and scattered through state statutes. These financial obligations can be difficult to identify, and yet, when a person exits the criminal justice system, they can often converge to create a significant barrier to successful reentry.
With generous support from the Public Welfare Foundation, the Shriver Center has begun to explore ways to reduce this type of debt and its negative impact on people who leave – and intend to stay out – of the criminal justice system. Last month, the Shriver Center released a report entitled “Debt Arising from Illinois’ Criminal Justice System: Making Sense of the Ad Hoc Accumulation of Financial Obligations.” The report is part one of a two-year study of how this system works as well as how it compares to systems in other states. The report focuses on identifying the different types of financial obligations that exist within the criminal justice system, any mechanisms that might relieve low-income defendants from debt that they cannot pay, and the devices that government agencies use to collect overdue debt in Illinois.
The numbers can be striking. For example, if a person is convicted for class four felony drug possession for the first time in Cook County, Illinois, he will incur a minimum of $1445 in financial obligations. Because this figure includes only financial obligations whose amounts are fixed by statute, it does not reflect those whose amounts are variable, such as the mandatory fine equal to the street value of the controlled substance or the additional $14 imposed for every $40 already assessed in fines. Nor does the $1445 figure include correctional fees, such as monthly probation fees and fees assessed by jails and prisons.
Compare the amount that a class four felony drug possession conviction triggers to the frequency with which it occurs in the Illinois criminal justice system. It may be the lowest level drug offense in Illinois, but class four felony drug possession also accounts for the highest percentage of the Illinois Department of Corrections’ incoming population. In 2004, for example, more people were sent to Illinois prison for possession of controlled substance than for any other single criminal offense. A high dollar amount assessed against a large number of people with convictions, however, does not necessarily mean increased revenue for the state, especially given that many of the people within the criminal justice system are poor.
The report also found that the numbers are not only high, but in some cases, they are also rapidly growing. Take the fees that people convicted of a criminal offense in Cook County must pay to the clerk of the circuit court. Today, a felony defendant owes over four times as much in these fees as he would have owed in 2004. Where he would have paid $35 in 2004, the amount due today would be $165. This growth is the result of a trend of imposing more fees on people with convictions. Out of the nine fees that Cook County imposes, four were created between 2005 and 2008, while a fifth was expanded to cover all criminal convictions, thus essentially acting as a new fee. During that same time period, the sixth and seventh fee tripled, while the eighth fee increased by 66 percent. Only the ninth fee remain constant. These increases, though, are not limited to Cook County. Rather, they reflect a trend in the state as a whole because Cook County cannot increase these fees without authority from the Illinois General Assembly to do so. Each of these increases, therefore, reflect a decision by the General Assembly to impose more fees on people in the criminal justice system. Given that the trigger for these fees is a conviction for any offense, it is time for both legislative bodies to consider the cumulative impact of these fee increases.
To learn more about these and other findings from the Shriver Center regarding debt arising from the Illinois criminal justice system, see its report here.