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Kathryn L. Harry & Associates, P.C.
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Avoiding Modern Day Debtors Prison in Illinois

Posted on in Arrest

illinois criminal defense lawyerDuring the week of May 19th, National Public Radio ran a series on its investigation into the practice of jailing individuals for unpaid debts to the criminal justice system.  Calling it the resurgence of “modern day debtor’s prisons” in America, NPR correspondents highlighted the effects these practices have on low income individuals who were fined for minor crimes.

They told a story of a 19-year-old father in Ionia County, Michigan who was fined 155 dollars for catching a fish that was out-of-season.  He was unable to pay the debt or borrow money to pay the entire debt, which had escalated to over 200 dollars by the time of the hearing.  Citing the need to have respect for the law even for minor violations, the presiding judge sentenced the man to jail time.  The story also covers an account of a 23-year-old mother of two who served an 11-day jail sentence for failing to make payments on a fine for driving without a license that escalated to 1,400 dollars.  In another segment, NPR correspondents summarized how serving jail time can destroy a defendant’s ability to keep a current job or get hired at a different job again in the future.

These stories illustrate to Illinois residents that failing to pay for fines and fees even when you are unable to do so is a serious matter that may result in jail time and the adverse social and employment related consequences that come with it.  Under Illinois law, you may be held in contempt of court and jailed for failing to pay court-ordered fines for criminal offenses.

Can Someone Also Be Jailed for Failing to Pay a Non-Criminal Debt, Such as a Credit Card Debt?

You usually cannot be initially jailed in Illinois for failing to pay a civil debt unless the creditor can prove you are financially able to pay the debt but are choosing not to do so.  Prior to 2012, it was possible for Illinois residents to be jailed for failing to pay civil debts like loan payments or credit card bills, simply because they could not afford to pay.  In these cases, if a debtor failed to show up in court for a debt collection case, the creditor could request a “body attachment,”  a process by which the debtor is forcibly brought into court.  When the defendant is hauled into court, the judge may order he repay the debt pursuant to a judgment made during the original hearing or be held in contempt of court and sentenced to jail.  This proceeding is similar to when parents are held in contempt of court for failing to pay court ordered-child support.

However, Illinois legislators enacted the Debtors Rights Act of 2012,which provided that a creditor can no longer call for body attachment and later incarceration of a delinquent debtor unless the creditor could prove that the debtor is hiding assets he could use to pay the debt.  This stops the practice of throwing the debtor in jail for merely being poor in civil cases, but still preserves a system for ensuring those with financial means to do so pay their debts.

What Can Someone Do Who is Struggling to Pay Court-Ordered Criminal Fines?

If you cannot come up with the fine money, it is important to attend your hearing.  Failure to attend your criminal hearing, even if for a minor violation, can subject you to additional charges, such as failure to appear, and the judge may order a bench warrant that would forcibly make you to appear in court.

At your hearing you can do two things: first, you may request an “indicated” or postponed sentence.  This means that you can agree to pay the assigned fine but obtain an extension for payment of the fine. Second, you can try to work out a payment plan with the judge or prosecutor.  Prior to the hearing, it is helpful to document your earnings and expenditures so you can show the Court how much you can afford to pay toward the fine.  After you work out a payment plan, try to find out the consequences if you are unable to make payments toward to plan in the future.

At the law offices of Kathryn L. Harry & Associates, P.C., we understand there can be far-reaching negative consequences that come from conviction for a seemingly minor criminal offense.  It is our objective to help you get through the criminal process with as few consequences as possible.  If you or someone you know needs help preparing for a criminal hearing, contact our law offices at 630-472-9700 for a free consultation.

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