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URBANA — If you’ve ever booked a hotel room for $149 a night and been billed well over $200 after taxes and fees were tacked on, you can identify with what defendants in Illinois criminal and traffic cases have been feeling for a long time.

Changes that took effect July 1 mean that defendants will now have a clear idea, before pleading guilty, of the true cost of running afoul of the law.

“Prior to this law taking effect, the joke I have been making is that ‘Under this star sign or when Mercury is in retrograde, you might be assessed the George Bailey Memorial Fund fee,’” said Champaign County Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman. “It was virtually impossible to calculate in the courtroom (the fines, fees and costs), so it was very difficult for a defendant to have a true understanding of what they could expect to pay.”

Changes to fees, fines and court costs in Illinois criminal, civil and traffic cases should take the sticker shock out of the process for litigants.

They were the result of legislation passed in 2018 intended to “address the confusion, inconsistency and financial hardship caused by the old system for assessing fines and fees,” said Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier.

Blakeman said circuit clerks have been working for months preparing for the new assessment structures in civil and criminal cases.

“In some cases, yes, fees are down and in some cases, no. Prior to the effective date, it was very, very different case by case. You might be able to give somewhat of an estimate of what to expect (to pay) for a felony DUI, but on drug or sex offenses, it was all over the place. What it is now is much more uniform,” Blakeman said.

The other new twist as of July 1 is that defendants in criminal cases who are poor can seek a waiver of part or all of the assessments set by statute if they qualify. Receiving disability or food stamps are reasons for waivers, for example. (Civil litigants previously could seek 100 percent waivers only; partial waivers are now an option.)

"The one good thing about it is our clients walk out of court with a financial sheet (saying what they owe), and they’ll never owe more than that,” said Champaign County Public Defender Janie Miller-Jones.

That is, if they pay what they owe and don’t get referred to a collection agency that could tack on interest, she and Blakeman noted.

Waivers for the poor

Miller-Jones said her attorneys will help public defender misdemeanor and felony clients seek the assessment waiver. The waiver is not available for traffic cases.

“If they are eligible for the fee waiver, we’re helping them fill out their form and, if granted a fee waiver, they know they will owe less than what the financial schedule says,” she observed.

Some assessments cannot be waived, such as the probation service fee, the court-appointed counsel fee or restitution.

“Those might be able to be dealt with a different way. Nobody walks out paying zero. It’s still a substantial chunk of change,” Miller-Jones noted.

Blakeman said the changes are meant to make the assessments uniform, easy to understand and directly related to the operation of the court system.

“Another principle is that the amount of the assessment should not impede access and should be waived for the indigent and working poor,” said Blakeman, chairwoman of the legislative committee for the Illinois Association of Court Clerks — the keepers of the court records who are also responsible for processing the fines, fees and costs of justice.

Those criminal defendants wanting a waiver of the court-ordered assessment have 30 days to ask for it.

Financial unknowns

Miller-Jones said in criminal guilty pleas she took part in July 1, Judge Heidi Ladd granted the waivers on the spot based on representations Miller-Jones made on behalf of her clients.

“They were all clear-cut. I had two clients on some form of Social Security, and the other two are on food stamps, and they get the 100 percent waiver. Those were simple,” she said.

Judges could request more documentation of financial circumstances for cases where the criteria are not as obviously met. It remains to be seen how exacting individual judges intend to be.

Ladd noted that there is a Jan. 1, 2021, expiration date for the assessments, presumably for the Legislature to evaluate how they are working and the effect of the waivers on such causes as prescription pill disposal or spinal cord research, just two of the many earmarks for court costs.

“No one knows the financial impact (the waivers) will have on the entities that rely on this money,” Ladd said.

Dealing with the mechanics of the new legislation fell in part to the state’s attorney’s office, which prepares the judgment orders, and now the fee sheets, in traffic and criminal cases.

‘Not hiding things’

State’s Attorney Julia Rietz said she researched buying software that tallies up assessments and fines but didn’t like the look of the product or the cost: about $12,000 a year.

She credited her office manager, Brett Lemons, with developing a PDF form easy for her attorneys to use and for defendants to understand.

Building on a template from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, Lemons created a form that allows the prosecutors to check applicable boxes that will populate with the dollar amounts for the crime category and any credits for time served, and calculate a total automatically, saving the attorneys time and sparing them potential math errors.

In high-volume courts like traffic, an attorney can deal with 200 cases a day, Lemons observed, so efficiency is important when making plea offers.

For defendants, it means they will know exactly what they have to pay before they agree to plead guilty and accept the financial consequences.

“It ties into the broader idea of reforming criminal justice to make it more understandable. We’re not hiding things,” Lemons said. “We’re telling them up front, ‘This is what you have to do’ as opposed to, ‘Sure, I can handle a $300 fine,’ but then have all these assessments that dramatically add to the bottom line.”

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).