Viewpoint | Fining kids by the Illinois criminal justice system needs to end

These costs have nothing to do with creating accountability or achieving victim restitution.
by Officer Dave Franco (Ret.)
Chicago Police Department
From my perspective, after 31 years in law enforcement and now as an adjunct professor teaching Juvenile Justice Administration at Wright College in Chicago, failure is when people involved in the justice system are left without the means to create a better future for themselves and their families. Across communities, those means can take many shapes. But here in Illinois, I see one glaring failure: the actual cost of justice, particularly for youth in the juvenile system. The juvenile fines and fees that burden young people and their families don’t enhance public safety—they fail as a measure for youth accountability and serve only to make youth more likely to reoffend.

As a committed member of Illinois’ law enforcement community interested in public safety and justice, I support the passage of SB1463 and its companion bill in the house, HB3120, and I hope other Illinoians will join me. Imposing harsh punishments on juveniles is an unfair and outdated practice that was never based on evidence and must be left behind.

In Illinois, “fine and fees” refer to administrative fees and financial penalties imposed by courts. The Juvenile Court Act of 1987 and other Illinois statutes set up a series of costs specifically for children and their families. But these costs have nothing to do with creating accountability or achieving victim restitution. The reality is a system that creates bigger barriers to youth rehabilitation.

These kids are likely still in school; they are unlikely to have jobs, and if they do, they have limited working hours and income. The system does not take into account their individual circumstances, and is, instead, designed for them to fail.

The new legislation is designed to streamline and simplify the juvenile justice process while reducing the cost for those involved by eliminating fines and fees in cases against minors. Right now, fines and fees can range from less than $50 to almost $1000 and add up quickly. These costs are higher in some counties than others. This legislation would address that problem and make justice equal across the state without undermining a judge’s ability to set victim restitution and order other non-financial conditions that focus on accountability and rehabilitation.

A 2016 study showed that financial penalties imposed on youth increased their risk of reoffending rather than acting as a deterrent. Unpaid debts have lifelong consequences that can impact job prospects, educational opportunities, and much more. Imposing debt on minors sets them up for continued failure and makes it increasingly difficult to change their circumstances without returning to criminal activity.

Passing this legislation won’t be a ‘get out of jail free’ card for youth and it won’t allow them to escape accountability for their actions. Instead, it will create space for new systems that are proven to increase public safety and improve outcomes for justice-involved youth. There are better options for rehabilitation and better ways for Illinois to spend money on the criminal justice system. In 2021, a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that restorative justice programs for juvenile offenders reduced the probability of rearrest by 44%, while another study found that community-based interventions were not only more effective, but less costly to states. Better justice practices are possible, we owe it to young people to give them a better chance at success.

Not only are the policies bad for recidivism rates, but they are bad fiscal policy as well. The longer someone has criminal justice debt, the less likely it is to be collected. Comparing Illinois counties to counties in other states where juvenile court debt collection is relatively high, the courts there only collect about 4% of debt that is more than six months old; after three years, the debt is completely uncollectible. Illinois counties can’t rely on debt they may never collect to pay for the cost of the justice system. Even if they do collect, the actual revenue still won’t be enough to cover the resources used to administer the system: most small counties in Illinois take in less than $5,000 in juvenile justice costs every year. Juvenile fines and fees generate almost no revenue and the cost of collecting is often higher.

If passed, SB1463 will be applied automatically and retroactively, meaning that existing debts will be canceled and no new ones will be imposed on juveniles and their families. This will not be a loss of revenue for Illinois counties, instead it will be a way for those counties to better use its resources that would have been spent on debt collection.

Illinois must join the over 20 other states that have eliminated or reformed juvenile fines and fees. The system of fines and fees is causing youth offenders to fail and we as Illinoians are failing them by not working for change. This legislation, SB1463/HB3120, is a critical step for public safety and for creating better systems of justice for Illinois’ juvenile offenders.

Officer David Franco (Ret.) served with the Chicago Police Department for three decades since the early 1980's, focused on issues ranging from terrorist threats to abandoned property and everything in-between. He is currently an adjunct professor of Criminal Justice at Wright College in Chicago. He holds a BA from Northeastern Illinois University and a MPA from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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