As it currently stands, more than 40 states are authorized to charge prison inmates for the costs related to their incarceration. In Illinois, the process generally involves a lawsuit filed by the Attorney General’s office on behalf of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) against a current or former prisoner who inherited or otherwise collected a sum of money during his or her incarceration. Last week, however, Illinois lawmakers took a major step toward eliminating the practice, as a bill that would prohibit such lawsuits passed the Senate by a 32-19 vote. Supporters of the legislation say that suing inmates to recover incarceration expenses can severely curtail their attempts to get back on their feet and avoid returning to criminal activity.
Exposure Leads to Action
In late November of last year, the Chicago Tribune published the story of a man who had been convicted on drug charges and was serving a 15-month prison sentence. During his incarceration, the man collected more than $30,000 in a settlement related to the wrongful death of his mother—money that he planned to use to build a new life on the outside. Before he could be released, though, the IDOC successfully sued the man for almost $20,000 to cover the costs of his imprisonment. When he was finally paroled, he left prison with virtually nothing, lived in a homeless shelter for a time, then with a family member, and, eventually, he died penniless.
The story struck a chord with two Illinois legislators, in particular. State Senator Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, and Representative Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, say that the report prompted them to draft legislation that would eliminate such lawsuits in the state. Biss and Cassidy believe that the practice is inconsistent with the corrections system’s goals of rehabilitating criminal offenders. “Your hope is they will wind up on their feet,” Sen. Biss said. “Taking what, in many cases, is limited resources is counterproductive.
Time to Act
The state of Illinois has been permitted to sue inmates for incarceration costs since 1982, though such lawsuits were rare until recent years. According to reports, the IDOC only pursued two cases each in 2012 and 2013, but the number jumped to 11 such suits in 2015. Since 2010, Illinois has recovered over half a million dollars, but the bulk of the amount came from only two prisoners.
Like Sen. Biss, Rep. Cassidy—who will serve as the bill’s chief sponsor as it is now under consideration in the state House—expressed her disapproval of the current system. “We pay for prison every day,” she said. “That’s the function of government. Fundamentally, this is just wrong.” She added that the public, in general, agrees that it is time for change, saying, “People mostly were mortified we were doing this.”
Regardless of the bill’s future, the most effective way to avoid being sued for the cost of imprisonment is to stay out of jail. Sometimes, however, that may not be as easy as it sounds. If you are facing criminal charges, you need the assistance of an experienced Will County criminal defense lawyer. As a former prosecutor, Attorney Jack L. Zaremba understands the system and will work hard to protect your rights and your future. Call 815-740-4025 to schedule a free, confidential consultation today.