Statutory Inequality: The Logics of Monetary Sanctions in State Law


After completing every other part of her sentence, a 53-year-old woman still owed about $1700 for probation costs. Even though the woman’s probation officer explained to the judge that the woman was experiencing financial hardship, the case drew on for three more years with frequent status hearings. Ultimately, the woman’s probation was revoked, she had to serve an additional 30 months in prison, one year of supervision, and was assessed more fines and fees.  

Based upon an examination of Illinois statutes, this article investigates the criminal justice system costs people are expected to pay, accommodations made for people who cannot afford their fines and fees, and the consequences of not paying these costs. Ideologies concerning criminals and punishment emerge through the authors’ analysis of these laws. 

You can read the full text of the article here

Key findings

  • Illinois county courts may charge people up to $500 for legal defense in misdemeanor cases, $5000 for representation in felony cases, and $2500 for appealing a conviction. Defendants who are found not guilty may still be expected to pay for these services. 
  • 90% of a $40 court assessment is earmarked for deposit into the Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal Fund. Revenue from fines and fees are directed towards other causes and funds that are not closely related to the criminal justice system nor the crime the person committed. 
  • An Illinois statute permits the Circuit Court clerk to tack on additional fees up to 15 percent onto delinquent accounts and report people who do not pay what they owe to credit reporting agencies. 
  • Because the Illinois Supreme Court has not designated a standard form for evaluating a person’s finances, counties have created their own affidavits that ask different questions. Judges have complete discretion to deem someone indigent and therefore eligible for public defender services and use the same unchecked authority to consider a person’s ability to pay fines and fees.  
  • Fines and fees for driving with a suspended license range from $395 to $3,832.50 in Illinois. 
  • In 44 states, including Illinois, people can be incarcerated for outstanding court debt if the court finds that the nonpayment was willful. The court considers a person’s willfulness to pay when deciding on probation revocation and according to the authors, it is difficult for a person to disprove willful nonpayment. 
Brittany Friedman, Rutgers University and Mary Pattillo, Northwestern University
The Russell Sage Foundation