When a defendant is convicted under state law in Illinois, he or she becomes responsible for the costs of prosecution, including the bills incurred by the sheriff for serving arrest warrants. When the defendant enters prison, state law allows county boards to require prisoners in their jails to reimburse the county for incarceration costs based on their ability to pay. And when the defendant leaves jail, an ex-con may be subject to a monthly probation charge. Such fees create a modern-day "debtors' prison" for Illinoisans and people in other states who have been convicted of a crime, according to a report (PDF) released this morning by the Brennan Center for Justice, a legal research organization. The fees have the cumulative affect of "charting a path back to prison" for many ex-inmates, the report says.
For example, in Illinois, like the other 14 states analyzed in the Brennan Center study, "at least one jurisdiction has a practice of arresting individuals if they miss debt payments or fail to appear at a debt-related proceeding, typically as the first step in a probation or parole revocation hearing or a civil contempt proceeding." State law here also makes criminal justice debt a condition of probation or parole, meaning ex-convicts, including the indigent, can go back behind bars if a court finds they willfully missed payments.
With the state's recidivism rate hovering around 50 percent and prison reform a major issue for the next gubernatorial administration, policymakers and elected officials should pay close attention to the report's core recommendations (see page 3). One important idea: allow those who cannot afford to pay off their criminal justice-related debt to complete meaningful community service programs instead. The Land of Lincoln could use some work on this front. The Brennan Center report notes that, "Generally Illinois law does not provide for community service in lieu of fees and fines, but community service is sometimes part of the sentence or is offered in lieu of non-mandatory drug assessment fines."