Cost of Incarceration

Any conversation with our wrongfully convicted clients opens your eyes to just how difficult reentry into society is after a period of incarceration. Of course, everyone’s story following incarceration is inherently different. Some have a large support network of family and friends; others struggle through reentry on their own. Some were incarcerated for decades and have to learn of all the new technology and changes that occurred in society while they were locked away; others do not. Regardless of the differences, there is one thing that remains a constant: it is a struggle, no matter what, to start over.

Compounding the inherent problems associated with reentry is an Illinois law, 730 ILCS 5/3-7-6(d), that permits the Attorney General to pursue claims in probate or bankruptcy proceedings to recover from committed persons the expenses incurred by their confinement. Such actions are pursued at the direction of the Department of Corrections. According to the Chicago Tribune the law, on the books since 1982, was used sparingly until just last year when 11 lawsuits were filed against inmates.

On the surface, this law might sound uncontroversial to some: taxpayer money is used to house inmates in prison and the burden to tax payers could be lessened if prisoners offset, even in part, those costs. However, the negative effects of this law are well documented and clearly outweigh any stated intention.

The law promotes recidivism. A person released from prison has the heavy task of re-creating their life. Doing so takes money. They need a place to live and food to eat. Looking for a job, let alone traveling to one each day, takes money when professional clothes and the ability to travel to a work place are needed. If a former inmate has a source of income, that income should be forward-looking, used to gain a strong foothold in society. The income source should not, as the law applies, be retroactive and force the person to pay fines for their past incarceration. Focusing on payment for past incarceration only leads people back to incarceration. If a person has their money recouped by the State and can no longer pay for their basic necessities, it is easy to look to other sources for income, leading to the risk of criminal occurrences.

The law is retaliatory against inmates who exercise their Constitutional rights. As is well known, an inmate does not forfeit all of his Constitutional rights during the time of incarceration.  Yet, an inmate who files a civil rights case against their facility may become a target for application of this law. Specifically, the law is applied when the Department of Corrections recommends to the Attorney General that an inmate or former-inmate has money that could be recouped. An inmate involved in a civil rights lawsuit against guards or a facility would be on the radar for such a recommendation. The best reported example of this retaliation is the situation where an inmate received $50,000 to settle a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections for failure to properly treat his cancer, and the Department then turned around and sued him for $175,000.  This example serves only to solidify fears that Departments will retaliate against inmates who file civil rights lawsuits. The support to this fear is rooted in the fact that the State does not routinely bring suit against all released inmates; their doing so is discretionary, which has the effect of targeting certain individuals in a punitive way.

The law is not fiscally responsible. If this law did, in fact, recoup the cost of incarceration in a meaningful way, its appeal would have significantly less support in our cash-strapped state. However, as the Chicago Tribune reported, the state has recovered just $512,219 since 2010, with 81% of that amount coming from just two inmates. The cost alone of initiating a probate or bankruptcy proceeding outweigh the little money received; proceedings involve the time of Department of Corrections supervisors, State’s attorneys and private attorneys, judges, and ultimately, social workers, employers, and others attempting to help the former inmate regain their footing in society. With everyone involved and just over $500,000 gathered in five years, the money earned is not worth the time and stress for all involved.

Highlighting these negative responses, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, and state Sen. Daniel Bliss, D-Evanston, introduced companion House and Senate bills that would repeal provisions of the code of corrections that allows the prison system to identify inmates with assets and target them for litigation. These bills should have the support of our community. How can we ensure that it does? Spread the word. And make sure your District lawmakers understand the import of this bill on those recently released from prison and their families. You can find your legislative district here, which includes contact information to reach out to each lawmaker.


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