Justice Department Takes Issue With “Profit-Minded” Court Systems

The statutes that govern the criminal justice and court systems in Illinois are full of references to fines, penalties, and financial sanctions to which an individual may be subject in certain situations. These monetary obligations could be the result of a simple traffic violation, a conviction on DUI charges or other crime, or simply as fees for taking a matter into court. There has been growing concern that lower-income individuals and families experience much greater difficulty in the pursuit of justice than those who can afford such costs. This week, the federal government has officially acknowledged the problem and has issued warnings to local municipalities and courts around the country.

A Growing Problem

The United States Department of Justice—commonly called the Justice Department—has issued a letter to chief judges and legal administrators in all 50 states asking them to be aware of the fines and fees that poor defendants are being required to pay. The letter expresses concern that many courts are using such practices to raise revenue, rather than for their intended purposes of ensuring public safety. Incarcerating individuals for failure to pay is also troubling to federal officials, according to reports, and is often counterproductive. In addition to mountains of debt for those who can least afford it, the letter takes issue with trapping people in “cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape.

Uncommon Action

While the letter contains no overt threats and lists no specific consequences, the correspondence itself is rather unusual. The Justice Department last issued such a letter in 2010, when it addressed the courtroom rights of non-English speakers regarding translators. Following that letter, the Justice Department opened formal investigations into the court practices of Colorado and North Carolina. The precedent leads many to believe that the federal government may be inclined to take action if nothing is done to rectify the problem.

Indigent or Willful?

Justice Department officials are not claiming that all fees and financial penalties are problematic. Rather, the concerns are more nuanced than that. Federal officials are asking courts to be aware of the fees and fines being imposed and the reasons behind them. In addition, courts should not rush to incarcerate an individual for nonpayment without first determining if the nonpayment was due to disregard for the order or a true inability to pay. The Justice Department is encouraging local judges to find more reasonable alternatives to incarceration for indigent defendants and to develop bail practices that unfairly impact the poor.

Legal Help for Your Unique Circumstances

If you are facing large fines or have been ordered to pay certain fees related to a criminal proceeding, it is important that you fully understand your rights under the law. Contact an experienced Joliet criminal defense attorney today for a free, confidential consultation regarding your case. At the Law Office of Jack L. Zaremba, we know how complicated the legal system can be, and we are prepared to help you every step of the way. Call 815-740-4025 and put our knowledge and skill on your side.

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