Illinois Bar Journal

May 2016Volume 104Number 5Page 10

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LawPulse

No more suing prisoners for room and board?

A senate bill would prohibit Illinois from suing prisoners for the cost of their prison stay.

A bill that would prohibit Illinois from suing prison inmates to recover the cost of their incarceration passed the Senate on April 5, 2016. SB 2465 is sponsored by Senator Daniel Biss of Evanston. In October 2015, LawPulse reported on the practice of funding the government with fees and fines collected from criminals. Suing prisoners for their costs is even more unfair, according to some observers.

Unlike fines, which are tied to the crime itself, fees for things like inmate room and board are designed to raise revenue. According to an article from the Brennan Center for Justice, the mean annual state corrections expenditure in 2010 was $28,323 per inmate. See Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Charging Inmates Perpetuates Mass Incarceration, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Charging_Inmates_Mass_Incarceration.pdf.

As of 2015, at least 43 states authorize room and board fees to be charged to inmates. There are competing policy perspectives involved in the debate over charging inmates for room and board. On one hand, some observers say that if society has made the choice to incarcerate an individual, then it should bear the cost of doing so. On the other, some believe that forcing inmates to pay for their incarceration is part of the punitive nature of being in jail - "it 'teaches them a lesson.'" Id. at 5.

Illinois currently has the ability to sue inmates or recently released convicts to recover the cost of their room and board. In situations where an individual inherits money or otherwise has some kind of savings, having those funds taken away by the state can lead to problems re-integrating into society. According to another article from the Brennan Center for Justice, former offenders with large debt loads face "major hurdles…finding and maintaining housing and employment, both key steps in promoting [their] reentry into their communities." See Alicia Bannon, Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier To Reentry, http://brennan.3cdn.net/c610802495d901dac3_76m6vqhpy.pdf.

Sen. Biss's bill seeks to minimize some of those hurdles. It removes the Department of Corrections's ability to investigate the assets of an inmate. It also prevents the DOC from seizing money earned by inmates who create works of art, literature, or handicraft.

Similarly, when inmates earn money from work assignments, the DOC could no longer take those funds to cover the cost of incarceration. While inmates may not earn significant amounts of money, the funds that they can earn are necessary to a successful reentry upon their release.

An example of the problem was reported by the Chicago Tribune last November. Johnny Melton, who had spent 15 months in prison for a drug offense, received $31,690 to settle a lawsuit regarding his mother's death. See Steve Mills, State Sues Prisoners To Pay For Their Room, Board, Chicago Tribune (Nov. 30, 2015), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-prison-fees-lawsuits-met-20151129-story.html. The DOC sued Melton prior to his release and recovered $20,000. Melton ended up in a homeless shelter after his release, ultimately living with a cousin. He died penniless in June 2015.

Roadblocks to recovery

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan told the Tribune that these kinds of lawsuits raise "moral" questions that state lawmakers should evaluate. "These recoveries may raise roadblocks to former inmates trying to lead successful lives out of prison. As a result, the judgments that must be made in attempting to recover incarceration costs raise moral questions that legislators need to address." Id.

In a press release issued on April 6, 2016, Sen. Biss stated, "This is a dangerous practice that can make it almost impossible for people who have paid their debt to society be able to get back on their feet, find housing and seek employment." See http://senatorbiss.com/news.

Since 2010, the state has sued 31 inmates to recover the cost of their incarceration; the state has recovered $512,219 as a result of those lawsuits, the lion's share coming from two inmates. See Mills, supra. Biss pointed to this figure, stating that "the return is not worth the state's investment in these expensive lawsuits, particularly when the costs of recidivism and reliance on taxpayer-funded programs, such as food stamps or housing assistance, are factored in." See Biss, supra.

Noting that former prisoners face serious barriers to reentry, Biss drew a sharp distinction between fines associated with crimes and charging inmates room and board. "While it's appropriate to assign financial penalties along with sentencing for certain types of crimes, the question is whether we want to rely on ad hoc lawsuits as a way to pay for the cost of prisons. It's not consistent with how government should work, nor is it in keeping with the principles of criminal justice and the idea of second chances." Id.


Matthew Hector
Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Woerthwein & Miller.

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