Illinois Court Fees Prevent Poor From Closing Cases
A felony drug conviction in DuPage County also results in a court security fee. It’s not much, just $15, but that isn’t the only charge.
There is also a $15 state police fee, a $20 drug disposal fee and a $100 trauma center fine. In total, the fees and fines come out to $4,400.
That money is intended to fund government services, but can also be a burden for poor people who want to move past a life of crime.
Some people convicted of certain misdemeanors or felony drug crimes in Illinois are eligible to seal or expunge their record, which hides them from potential employers. But in most cases, that requires first paying off those court bills.
Finding that money was extremely difficult for 44-year-old Alfredia Byrd.
“At the end of the day, some of (the fees) were … just a ridiculous amount,” Byrd said. “[But] I feel good to know that I don’t have all those labels of what I used to be, what I used to do.”
Byrd, who now lives in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood with her 8-year-old son, said she was addicted to crack cocaine and heroin for nearly 15 years.
“I was going to jail … I had dope come through the mail,” Byrd said. “You name it, I tried it when I was in my addiction.”
Byrd said she stopped using drugs when she was pregnant with her son, but claimed her criminal record still took her out of the running for jobs.
So Byrd set out to get her criminal record sealed. Five of her convictions occurred in Rockford in Winnebago County, where her record included possession of drug paraphernalia and operating an uninsured motor vehicle.
Byrd said she had not been in contact with the Winnebago County court, and was “shocked” to find out her cases were still open because she never paid the fines and fees.
She owed $3,794.70, which the county said must be paid to get her records sealed.
Byrd said that at the time she was an intern making about $9.50 an hour.
“It hit my pocketbook hard, that made me even want to pick up a second job or ask for some help because I was broke,” Byrd said. “I wasn’t even able to spend none of my money.”
Getting ‘blood out of a turnip’
Part of the fees are mandated by state legislature to pay for everything from mental health programs to roadside memorial funds. Unlike court fines, which are punitive and discretionary, many court fees are set. And fees have been growing fast across the state.
For example, fees for operating an uninsured vehicle in DuPage County went from $55 to $225 in the last 20 years, according to Lisa Goodwin with the DuPage County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.
“You’re trying to get blood out of a turnip,” Cook County Associate Judge Thomas Donnelly said. “You’re trying to get somebody to pay who has no money. You can’t terminate their case. And they’ll never be able to expunge it.”
For a decade, Donnelly presided over misdemeanor and felony criminal cases in Cook County. Donnelly, who moved to civil court about six years ago, said he often saw people in Byrd’s situation.
“If a fine or a fee is a condition of supervision or probation, then that condition must be fulfilled before the case will be closed,” said Illinois State Appellate Defender Michael Pelletier, whose office represents criminal defendants on appeal and aids in sealing and expungement. “And only once the case is closed will the defendant have the right to seek expungement or sealing of a record.”
Not every judge interprets the law that way -- lawyers told WBEZ that some Cook County judges seal or expunge cases without court fees being paid.
But Donnelly was not one of those judges, and expressed frustration with his interpretation of the law.
“It causes the law to fall into disrepute,” Donnelly said. “Because they’ve complied with every condition they possibly can. But for their status as poor people, they would be able to terminate their case, and get it expunged, and get on with their life.”
In a statement, the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County said it was unaware that mandatory fees are potentially keeping people from sealing or expunging their records.
The office noted it functions solely as the “cashier” in collecting court fees, and Clerk Dorothy Brown could “not possibly opine” on whether fees are too high.
Reformers claim ‘undue burden’
Thomas Lawson, Chief Deputy Circuit Clerk for Winnebago County, also expressed sympathy for people struggling to pay court fees, but argued they were necessary to support the court system without further taxing the public.
However, momentum for court fee reform is growing in Springfield. State Representative Elaine Nekritz served on the Illinois Statutory Court Fee Task Force, which published its findings in June. Lawson also participated in the task force.
“Individually [the fees] are a very small amount, and they are funding a worthwhile program[s],” she said. “But cumulatively what we have now created is something that I think is an undue burden on many criminal defendants, with no way to waive it.”
Nekritz said she and other lawmakers are currently drafting legislation that would clearly allow courts to waive court fees for criminal defendants who cannot afford them.
“The recommendation of the task force was to tie it to the federal poverty level,” Nekritz said. “So if you’re at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level you would have all of your assessments waived.”
Byrd said she did not get financial help to pay her court fees, and said she spent her entire tax return to close her Winnebago County cases to eventually get them sealed.
She said she now works as a private security officer.
“When a person gets a second chance, and they are truly truly sincere down to the gut of their stomach, I think you should give them the room and opportunity to have that second chance,” she said. “So, you know, the light can shine on them also.”
Miles Bryan is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @miles__bryan.