Prison lawsuit bill passes Illinois Senate

Billy Kobin, Reporter

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) that would prohibit the state from suing prison inmates under certain circumstances passed the Illinois Senate last week.

Senate Bill 2465 would prohibit the Illinois Department of Corrections from suing former and current inmates to recover the cost of their room and board while in prison. The bill passed the Illinois Senate, 32-19, last Tuesday, and state representatives are now considering the legislation in the Illinois House of Representatives.

“This is a dangerous practice that can make it almost impossible for people who have paid their debt to society (to) be able to get back on their feet, find housing and seek employment,” Biss said in a news release.

Illinois has had a law allowing the state to sue inmates since 1982, but the state has rarely sued them until recently, according to the release.

Biss said in the release the current law is not aligned with the role of a government.

“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,” Biss said. “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.”

A Chicago Tribune investigation from November 2015 found the state had filed two such lawsuits in 2012 and two more in 2013 before filing 11 lawsuits in 2015 in attempt to recover the costs of keeping prisoners.

The state went after some inmates after learning they had received inheritances or settlements from other lawsuits involving private affairs or related to their arrests, according to the release.

“It’s not as though most of them are millionaires,” Biss said in the release. “We’re talking mainly about people with relatively modest inheritances or court settlements that the state is going after.”

Illinois has recovered about $500,000 since 2010 in specific lawsuits against inmates, but most of the money came from suits against two inmates, according to the release.

Nicole Wilson, an IDOC spokeswoman, told The Daily the IDOC is neutral in regards to the bill.

“We will do what the General Assembly tells us to do,” Wilson said.

Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) introduced a companion bill addressing the same issue in the Illinois House of Representatives in February.

“We pay for prison every day,” Cassidy told the Chicago Tribune in February. “That’s the function of government. Fundamentally, this (current law) is just wrong.”

The House bill is currently being reviewed in the Rules Committee, and Cassidy is serving as the chief house sponsor for Biss’ bill.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a statement she encouraged the legislature to review the current statute and decide which policy they would like in the future.

The current law charges my office with recovering incarceration costs when requested by the Department of Corrections, but these cases can present significant roadblocks to former inmates who are trying to lead successful lives outside of prison,” Madigan said in the statement.

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