Illinois Governor Fights For The Right To Make Inmates Pay For Prison

A late-breaking veto will preserve a crooked practice.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-IL) is working to ensure his administration can keep suing inmates to recoup the cost of their stays in jail.

After the Chicago Tribune brought some abusive room-and-board lawsuits to light last fall, state lawmakers hashed out a tense compromise over legislation to shield inmates. But on Friday, Rauner sent the bill back to the legislature.

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Rauner’s partial veto would allow the state to keep suing for the cost of an inmate’s incarceration, but set some undefined threshold for net worth below which an inmate could not be sued. But Rauner’s altered version of the bill leaves it up to the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) itself to determine that threshold.

Illinois gave itself permission to sue the incarcerated to recoup jail costs back in 1982. But it was a right little used until Rauner, a staunch conservative who ran as a plain-spoken businessman in 2014, took office. After the DOC filed two lawsuits in 2012 and two more in 2013 under his predecessor Pat Quinn (D), Rauner’s administration filed 11 of the cases last year.

Prison officials are authorized to recoup their costs from individual inmates in almost every U.S. state. Inmates are typically billed on a day rate for food and housing, and on an ad-hoc basis for medical care. Upon release, those debts may be turned over to a collections agency, or pursued in court.

Rauner’s increasing interest in going after inmates in court in the past two years has sometimes seemed vengeful.

One inmate he sued had just won a $50,000 legal settlement from the agency over inadequate medical care claims. The state sued him for $175,000 “even though the department already had agreed in writing not to try to claw back the settlement money,” the Tribune wrote in November.

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Even when the DOC wins these suits, the paper found, they may not recoup enough money to cover the money taxpayers spent litigating them in the first place. And with a state corrections budget of $1.5 billion per year, bringing cases like this means purposelessly nickel-and-diming people who are on the verge of trying to reestablish themselves as productive citizens.

Take the story of Johnny Melton for example. Melton served a 15-month sentence on a drug charge. While he was behind bars, he won nearly $32,000 in a wrongful death lawsuit over his mother’s passing. That kind of money would have helped the low-level offender hit the ground running after his release.

Instead, the state DOC sued him and won a judgment amounting to more than two-thirds of his settlement money from the unrelated case. Melton landed in a homeless shelter upon release from prison. In June 2015, he died.

“He didn’t have a dime,” Melton’s sister Denise told the Tribune.

State lawmakers’ attempt to bar the state from suing people corresponds with a broader national drive for policies that will help people regain their footing after prison. Former inmates face immense hurdles to getting legitimate work or finding safe and stable housing. Without such basic building blocks of a productive and secure life, people who have already paid one debt to society are more likely to incur another.

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Reformers in several states have sought to loosen the economic cuffs for former inmates in the past few years. Many have abandoned longstanding rules that barred drug convicts from food stamps for the rest of their lives, for example. Others have passed “ban the box” legislation to prohibit hiring managers from automatically screening out anyone with a criminal record. And federal officials have worked to reestablish funding for higher education behind bars.

Rauner’s move would help his state veer in the other direction at a time when many policymakers are taking aim at ending the linkage of poverty and incarceration. Numerous lawsuits around the country are challenging both fee-based judicial systems that make poverty a crime, and cash bail systems that allow jailers to effectively extort low-level offenders.