BY: The Exoneration Project

Penalizing Poverty

Attorney Karl Leonard

Being charged with a crime in Cook County is an expensive proposition.  A person charged with a crime—all of whom are presumed innocent—often must come up with enormous sums of money in order to be released on bond prior to trial.  If they are unable to do so, they will be kept in the Cook County Jail and, because that makes going to work impossible, defendants frequently lose their jobs.  Unless they qualify for representation by the Public Defender, a person accused of a crime must also come up with a substantial amount of money to hire a lawyer.

Post-Conviction Court Costs

Our justice system’s efforts to penalize poverty continue well after someone has been accused of a crime.  Indeed, the courts continue to punish poverty even after a person has been convicted and completed their sentence.

I was sitting in the Markham courthouse a few days ago waiting for my client’s case to be called.  I watched as a long-haul truck driver explained his situation to a judge.  He had been convicted of a relatively minor offense and completed his jail term.  Since his release, he has been under “mandatory supervised release”—better known as parole.  His parole conditions mandated that he submit to drug screenings, find a job, stay out of trouble, keep in regular contact with his parole officer, and similar things.  He has complied with every single requirement, but one:  paying $600 in court costs.  He cannot pay the court costs until he receives a paycheck.  But, in order to get paid, he needs to do his job.  His employer offered him a job driving his truck across the country and back. But, leaving the state is forbidden under the terms of his parole.  The gentleman asked the court to allow him to drive his truck out of state, so that he could get paid, and so that he could support himself and pay the $600 in court costs.  The judge refused the request, telling the truck driver that he was not allowed to leave the state until he paid the $600.  The judge spent zero time even contemplating the request.  She simply denied it as soon as the man was done speaking and told him to come back when he has paid the $600.  In other words, this man is not allowed to do his job until he earns $600, but he cannot earn $600 until he can do his job.

The judge made no effort to even rationalize the Catch-22 of her decision.  To this judge, rules are rules; once the truck driver pays what he owes, he can leave the state.  To the court, it was not even worth considering that this rigid adherence to the rule defeats the truck driver’s ability to comply with the rule.  Her ruling simultaneously declared that the rule must be followed and that it cannot be followed.

This judge’s decision is far from unique. I was recently at the main criminal courthouse at 26th and California.  A gentleman was before the court explaining that he has complied with every single requirement of his parole but has not yet paid all of what he owes in fines and court costs.  The judge told the defendant he would give him 2 more weeks to pay, or else he would send the man to prison for 3 years.  Setting aside the glaring waste of taxpayer dollars that would result from the imprisonment of someone for 3 years due to his inability to pay a small fine, this judge’s willingness to level such a threat speaks volumes about our criminal justice system.

In Cook County it is illegal to be poor and we will punish you for it.

The court costs at issue are not insignificant.  To a poor person, they are often insurmountable.  If you are convicted of a felony in Cook County, you can expect to pay a $190 fee for the pleasure.  If it was a misdemeanor, you will pay $110.  Everybody convicted can expect to pay a $25 “court automation fee” (a fee that is confounding given that you have to call the clerk’s office on the telephone to even find out your next court date).  They will also charge you $25 for “document storage.”  This is just a small sampling of the “fees” imposed on an individual convicted of a crime.  All of these fees are on top of any fines that have been assessed, the cost of hiring a lawyer, the cost of missing work, the cost of providing childcare while you are in court, etc.

Being poor is expensive.

These “fees” are ridiculous.  Worse is the manner in which far too many judges refuse to exercise any discretion to make sure defendants like the truck driver above can actually get jobs, comply with the terms of their parole, and pull themselves out of poverty.  Equally bad is the way in which our state will literally punish the poor for being poor, like the judge above who wanted to send a man to jail for three years because he was having trouble paying his fines and court costs.

Poverty is complicated.  It has complex causes, complex effects, and complex solutions.  There are no easy answers.  Not making matters worse by punishing people for being poor would be a good start.