Chicago Appleseed - Fund for Justice

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Last month, the Appellate Court of Illinois in the First District handed down a decision in Illinois v. Glass that reinforces the urgent need for reform regarding some of the primary avenue through which Illinois courts collect money from criminal defendants. In a ruling delivered by Justice Mikva, the Court reiterated that a defendant’s posted bond money cannot be used reimburse the county for providing a public defender unless a hearing has been held and findings made about the accused person’s ability to pay. In the Cook County trial court reviewed in this case, the court inquired only as to how many times Mr. Glass appeared before the court before concluding that using $500 of his posted bond to reimburse the county was “appropriate.” Though authorized under Illinois law, reimbursement for public defense services, other appellate decisions make clear than reimbursement should take place “only where the trial court finds that a defendant has an ability to pay.”

The decision expresses frustration at the regularity with which trial courts fail to conduct adequate hearings before taking bond money for reimbursement purposes and the resulting waste of appellate court resources spent reviewing such decisions. “Our supreme court has repeatedly admonished trial courts of their duty to hold a proper hearing before imposing fees for the services of appointed counsel. … We hope that this practice has ceased and the appeals we see on this issue are simply those that are still working their way through the judicial system.”

In addition to reviewing the public defender reimbursement, the appellate court vacated a portion of the $2,839 in fines and fees that were assessed against Mr. Glass. Justice Mikva found that a number of the fines and fees were imposed incorrectly, some in clear violation of their authorizing statutes. The Court, seemingly exasperated, “urge[s] both the State in seeking these fees and the trial courts in awarding them to avoid imposing fees on criminal defendants that are not authorized by statute.” The frequency with which fines and fees are improperly assessed highlights the need for improved training and oversight regarding fines, fees, and costs at the trial court level. Such improvements at the initial stage will result in better experiences for defendants and preserve judicial resources.

Chicago Appleseed has been working to address both these issues for a number of years. Last fall, we testified against a Cook County Board budget amendment that sought to institutionalize the practice of reimbursing the county with bond money by using it to fund positions in the public defender’s office.  Though legal, forcing impoverished defendants to pay for public defense violates the right to an attorney guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

In addition, when the courts regularly fail to return bond money, fewer people will be bonded out, resulting in increased pretrial at the county’s expense. More importantly, taking posted bond money significant harms the families and communities who are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, and particularly African-American communities. Attempts to fund the costs of a constitutionally required public defense on the backs of Cook County’s poorest and most vulnerable communities are unconscionable and unsustainable.

In the same vein, our criminal court system should not be funded through the assessment of fines, fees, and costs against court users. In May of 2016, Chicago Appleseed and our partners at Chicago Council of Lawyers released a report detailing the devastating, unfair, and possibly illegal use of fines, fees, and costs in Illinois’s criminal courts. In June of 2016, a special Task Force of the Illinois Supreme Court issued a complementary report agreeing on the urgent need for reform of court assessments in civil, criminal, and traffic cases to improve transparency and fairness and making a number of recommendations.

A number of the recommendations made in both reports, including complete and partial fee waivers for indigent defendants, are now proposed as part of HB 2591, The Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act, introduced by Representative Steven Andersson and backed by a number of bar associations and policy organizations. You can read more about HB 2591’s impact and supporters on this fact sheet. Please contact Sharlyn Grace if you are interested in supporting The Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act or Appleseed’s other advocacy work in this area.

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