TV-6 Investigates: Rising Illinois court fees

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WHITESIDE COUNTY, Ill. (KWQC) - Justice for all. That's one phrase in our Pledge of Allegiance, but when it comes to Illinois' courts, the phrase may need to be changed to justice for those who can afford it.

A state panel reported increasing court costs have priced out people who can't pay court fees from accessing justice.

Earlier this summer Dan Hirstein was headed to Chicago on I-88 when he made a mistake.

Hirstein said, "Came across a state trooper that was off the road, had his lights on, and I went by him, and a short time later I was pulled over.">

The trooper gave him a ticket for not moving over. A month later Hirstein went to court. He pleaded guilty and the judge fined him $95, but it didn't end there.

Hirstein said, "I was very surprised after that that the total bill which counted court costs was $404 which included 16 different fees besides the original fine."

Hirstein said the fees paid for services he wasn't using or didn't need.

"I paid fees for everything from violent crime to trauma, probation, if you can think of something, they probably had it in there," said Hirstein.

He paid fees for drug court, child advocacy, even driver's ed.

Hirstein said, "Seeing such a discrepancy it seems like the government's out of control."

Illinois set up a task force to study this very issue. It reported last June that in virtually all court cases, the fees inject unfairness into the system. People pay different amounts for the same legal issues across the state.

Statutory Court Fee Task Force Co-Chairman Steven Pflaum said, "We think that's a problem that needs to be addressed so that it doesn't undermine citizens perceptions of the fairness of the court system."

Pflaum said the problem has two root causes. First, lawmakers turned to court users to pay for things like after-school programs and roadside memorials.

"There are too many things that have been piled onto it," said Pflaum.

Second, a belief developed that the people going to court should pay for the service like a toll road. Pflaum said that's unfair.

"This is a basic governmental service, the access to justice, the ability to receive justice is one of the most basic services that our government provides."

Some counties have court staff dedicated to helping people pay their court debts. In Knox County, that job falls to Compliance Officer Tyson Parks.

"I can't absolve those fees, but I can help them meet that obligation with some dignity, and for some of them, I've been able to help them and refer them in getting jobs," said Parks.

Parks said people come to him who have no jobs, or only make minimum wage. He said some people don't know how they're going to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in court costs.

Parks reminds them...

"Slow progress is better than no progress," said Parks.

He helps create a payment plan that's workable for whoever's sitting across from him.

"It's their responsibility, it gives them the power, they're in control of their own destiny, all I'm trying to do is help them along the way," said Parks.

Parks said he's collected $455,000 in Knox County this year alone. He doesn't have an opinion on the fees since he's in collections. But, he tries to be fair with people.

"As long as you're making a good faith and honest effort, we can work with you," said Parks.

Hirstein didn't need a payment plan up in Whiteside County.

"I was able to scratch through it but needless to say I could have used the money in a better way," said Hirstein.

He believes most of the money should have stayed in his wallet.

"They've got to fund these various programs and they've got to get the money somewhere, and once again let's nail the people that we're ticketing," said Hirstein.

The court fee task force has proposed legislation to reform Illinois' court fees. That bill is pending in Springfield with dozens of lawmakers supporting it.

The task force reported Illinois can't realistically make all fees across the state the same for civil cases like divorce or lawsuits. But it said traffic and criminal fees should be set equally across the state.