What Kind of “Court” Is City Court?

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Champaign County. When people think of courts, they
think of the county or federal courts where one has certain
constitutional rights. City Court is something altogether
You might wind up in City Court if you have violated
a city ordinance and haven’t paid the fine in time. If you
don’t pay the fine by the deadline, or if you decide to
challenge the charge, you will appear in City Court
either by walking in at a certain date, by being brought
there in chains by a sheriff’s deputy, or by answering to
the court via closed circuit TV from one of the county
jails. The latter two options are for people who have
ignored their summonses.
Judge Holly Clemons of Champaign County currently
hears the cases in City Court. Prosecution is conducted by
an attorney in the city’s legal office. Both Urbana and
Champaign make use of City Court, but Champaign uses
it four times more frequently more than does Urbana, normally
once a week as opposed to once a month.
Defendants’ rights are very truncated in City Court. The
defendant has the right to a trial by jury—if the defendant
is able to pay for it. The fee is $66.25 for a jury of 6, or
$137.50 for a jury of twelve.
The fee is not remunerated even if the defendant is
found innocent. Defendants in the City Court also have
the right to be represented by an attorney, but again only if
they can afford one. No public defenders are provided in
these trials.
These policies are particularly disturbing when we look
at those who wind up in City Court. Most defendants
are there because they could not pay their fines. The
fines for the 21 kinds of offences prosecuted in the City
Court run up to $700, with minimums being $165,
$215, and $310 depending on the specific offence. In
my own court observations, $350 was a very common
amount. In addition, there is the $750 court expense fee
that one must pay to the county if one is found guilty.
Until very recently, it was virtually automatic that the
only alternative to paying over $1,000 was to work it off
by sitting in the county jail; the meter there would tick
$20 off your “debts” to the city and county per day. That
was a bad deal for the county because it crowded the jail
and it cost the county far more than $20 a day to hold
and feed the prisoner. So, several months ago the sheriff
decided to use monitored home confinement for some
of those “debtors.” Debtors prison for private debts has
been abolished. But it is alive and well for public debt, at
least in our area.
Despite the costs of confinement to the county, the city
of Champaign still manages to make a good bit of money
off of these infractions. In 2009, 60% of the violations
were paid directly or by mail, bringing in $493,365. In
addition to that, the city made $119,073.71 from people
found guilty by the court.
In addition to the clear patterns we see regarding the
economic class of the people appearing in the court,
African Americans are severely overrepresented. In a
recent study by Athena Hollins, it was revealed that 87%
of those appearing in Champaign’s City Court between
March and May 2010 were African Americans. Keep in
mind that the percentage of African Americans in Champaign
is only about 15.
Hollins looked at the three most common charges
brought before the court: “Specific Noise Violations, ” i.e.,
loud noise that can be heard beyond property lines or residential
units, “Vehicular Noise Violations“, i.e., mainly
noise from car radios, and possession of 10 grams or less
of cannabis.
In the first noise category, for which the minimum fine
is $200, 68% of the defendants were African American. In
the vehicular noise category, for which the minimum fine
is $165, over 90% were African American. In the cannabis
possession category, for which the minimum fine is $310,
89% were African American. Some of the other offences
that come to City Court, such as public urination and
placing trash in another person’s trash bin, hit the homeless
particularly hard.
Only 39% of the noise violations and 29% of the
cannabis violations were paid directly at the city building
or by mail. On the other hand, 89% of the citations
for underage drinking of alcohol, 92% of delivering
alcohol to minors, and 85% of the having beer kegs at a
party without a license offences were settled by direct
payment or mail. Here we see a racial and class bias at
work. The latter offences were those committed largely
by university students, the vast majority of whom are
white. They or their parents could afford to pay the fines
and avoid City Court.
Many in the African American community do not have
the financial resources to avoid City Court. Furthermore,
the fines and court costs that are extracted from the
African American community are extracted from exactly
that segment of the population that can least afford to pay.
They also wind up disproportionately populating our two
county jails.
A major reason for this is the very different ways that the
African American and white neighborhoods in Champaign
are policed. The very aggressive, militarized, zero-tolerance
approach that the police take in the North End, especially
with youth who like their music loud and share the same
enjoyment from a joint that many white kids do without
police intervention, is largely responsible for this bias.
We began this article by asking, “what kind of court is City
Court?” What we find is that City Court is tailor-made to
take advantage of poor people, and especially African
Americans who make up a large percentage of our poor
citizens. It is a court in which there is no right to a lawyer
and no right to a jury trial; those things must be bought.
In other words, City Court is a court where the guarantee
of equal protection of the laws embodied in the 14th
Amendment of the US Constitution does not apply. City
court reflects the spirit of Anatole France’s characterization
of French capitalist laws in the late 19th Century: “The
law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the
poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to
steal bread.” And in our City Court, to jail you shall go if

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