Illinois Governor Vetoes Bill That Would Stop the State's Petty Practice of Suing Inmates

Illinois corrections officials sued Johnny Melton into abject poverty after he got out of prison. For now, they can still do the same to other inmates.


Nancy Stone/TNS/Newscom

Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a package of criminal justice reform bills into law this week in a rare show of bipartisan cooperation with the Democrat-led state legislature, but one bill that didn't make the cut: legislation that would stop the state from suing inmates to recoup the cost of their incarceration.

Under Illinois law, as well as in 42 other states, corrections officials s can sue inmates to recover their room and board costs. Rauner vetoed a bill last Friday, narrowly passed by the legislature, that would have stopped the practice, which critics say is petty and vindictive, leaves prisoners destitute, and possibly costs more in the end than the revenue the lawsuits actually generate.

Rauner returned the bill to the legislature with suggested alterations. Rauner's version would add a threshold amount of money necessary to pursue a lawsuit, which he says would protect poor inmates while preserving the state's ability to go after others with significant assets.

"While I agree that this power should be used sparingly and judiciously, there are circumstances when it is warranted," Rauner said in a veto statement, citing serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was sued by Illinois in 1993 to recover $141,000 in proceeds from the sales of Gacy's paintings while behind bars.

The Chicago Tribune reported late last year on one such inmate lawsuit involving Johnny Melton. While in prison, Melton received a roughly $30,000 settlement from lawsuit over his mother's death, which he hoped to use to rebuild his life when he got out of prison. Here's what "sparingly and judiciously" looks like in practice in the state of Illinois:

But before he was released, after 15 months in prison for a drug conviction, the Illinois Department of Corrections sued Melton and won nearly $20,000 to cover the cost of his incarceration. When Melton was paroled earlier this year, he was forced to go to a homeless shelter, then was taken in by a cousin. He got food stamps. When he died in June, according to his family, he was destitute.

"He didn't have a dime," said one of Melton's sisters, Denise Melton, of Chicago. "We had to scuffle up money to cremate him."

Civil liberties advocates and criminal justice groups argue it's bad public policy to soak inmates with fees to the point of poverty, as in the case of Melton, where there's a good chance they'll end up on some form of public assistance—or worse, back in prison—and cost the state even more money.

"These fines are also counter-productive in ensuring public safety," a 2014 Brennan Center for Justice report argued. "Incarcerated people who re-enter society are less likely to successfully reintegrate with hundreds of dollars in fines hanging over their heads. Furthermore, it often costs more to administrate the fees than counties are generating in revenue. Some agencies report actual revenues from their fee based operations are as low as six percent of the fees assessed."

The Tribune investigation found that the Department of Corrections sued 31 prisoners since 2010, but has only recovered money from 11. Fourteen of those cases were dismissed outright. The vast majority of the $415,590 it recovered over that time period came from two inmates. The Illinois Department of Corrections annual budget is more than $1.3 billion.

In fact, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan encouraged the legislature to review the law the bill, saying in a statement after it passed the general assembly: "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."

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  1. As an Illinoisan I applaud the State trying to bleed every last one of the taxpayers here of our cash. Grab it’s motherfuckin’ wallet. /sarc
    Meanwhile Illinois can’t legalize weed so that it could solve it’s financial woes through capitalism.
    Yay Illinois.

    1. Grab it’s motherfuckin’ wallet

      I’m totally stealing this.

    2. Capitalism can’t deal with greed backed up by no-consequence violence. Legalize weed, tax it, state gets a ‘windfall’ and blows it, raises taxes next year, wonders why the legitimate dealers closed down and everyone is back to buying from the dude hanging out in front of the Circle-K.

  2. Give them prison jobs – it’s OK, the 13th Amendment has an exception for convicted criminals. When they’re released, tell them, “well, look, seems you’ve worked off your room and board.”

    They should only be civilly sued by the victim, if they have enough assets to be worth suing.

    1. They shouldn’t even be civilly sued – there should be no ‘dual jurisdiction’ (I feel the same about state/federal criminal law). You can choose to deal with a crime against you in civil court (and recoup monetary damages) *or* deal with it in a criminal court – no money back, but incarceration, etc awaits the defendant if found guilty.

      But you shouldn’t get a bite of both pies.

      Plus, allowing the ‘victim’ to sue after the end of a criminal sentence is what has opened up this idiocy in Illinois – I’m willing to bet that for a lot of the former prisoners being sued that they were drug convictions or violators of some sort of regulatory law (like not having a permit for a concealed firearm, that sort of thing). In all those types of things the victim is the state.

  3. If you don’t want to be sued afterwards, don’t be a criminal, amirite?

    1. As long as their suing into bankruptcy their former governors at a higher rate than general poor people, I’m willing to tolerate it.

  4. The State just wants to dip its beak.

  5. Maybe try to change the procedure to reflect some accountability w.r.t. “sparingly and judiciously” in practice.

    Require the Governor to sign-off before the state can sue.
    Potential bad publicity could minimize the bad examples cited.

    Most government decisions should be made by elected officials!

    1. Is the AG elected in Illinois?

  6. John Wayne Gacy, who was sued by Illinois in 1993 to recover $141,000 in proceeds from the sales of Gacy’s paintings while behind bars.

    Were the paintings portraits of his victims?

    Gacy is not the best example, but a major part of “rehabilitation” must be allowing/encouraging the prisoner to develop skills which will allow him to earn his way honestly in the world. Stealing the fruits of those labors, even those produced during incarceration, makes it plain to one and all that the state’s only real aim is punitive; further, such vindictive behavior virtually guarantees lifelong recidivism.

  7. I’m so glad my father moved us from that shitpit to…Kentucky. And then we left that slightly less shitty pit for Texas.

    All my relatives still live in southern Illinois, and having all worked for the state in various capacities, all I get when I talk to them is bitching about worrying their pensions and healthcare will be cut.

  8. You’d think that a governor of Illinois, given the near certainty that he will be incarcerated at some point in the future, would want a law like this passed.

    1. Ah, that’s where I should have gone. Well played.

  9. Let’s say “we” want restitution made to the victims. That’s reasonable, but if we effectively enslave the prisoner we remove positive incentives.

  10. Under Illinois law, as well as in 42 other states, corrections officials s can sue inmates to recover their room and board costs.

    Ok, I’ll admit my lack of Civics knowledge here, but how the fuck, and under what circumstances does this occur? As dumb as this law sounds, they can’t possibly be suing 100% of the inmates that leave the system, so there must be a metric or set of circumstances that deems a particular inmate sue-able?

    Part b: How does this jibe with the rapacious need for Blue Legislatures to make sure everyone pays their fair sharez? Does this prove there’s no limiting principle to that?

  11. Seems counterproductive and kind of mean.

    I think you’d want people getting out of prison to have the means to get their lives going in some reasonable way.

    1. You know who else sent a bill to the family for the bullet after the firing squad?

      1. The Soviets weren’t even that cold-blooded.

        1. True, but the Chinese were, and are.

  12. And when ex-cons who have been stripped of their last dime go back to crime, these shitheads will have the nerve to act surprised.

  13. Fucked up. I could possibly get behind applying this concept to other people who are living off of state and federal room-and-board; people like governors and presidents.

    It’s not like it would serve as a deterrent (or that people would know and expect it prior to committing a crime). No one would decide that they were willing to do the time associated with a crime, but weren’t willing to pay that tab when they check out.

    It’s not like the prisoners chose to live in prison and agreed to paying some certain amount of room and board. They are forced to live there. The living conditions are shit. The food is shit. There is no choice in the matter. And, oh yeah… your chance of ass-rape is far higher than normal.

    But fuck it (buttfuckit?), let’s make those damn ingrates pay for the luxury we afforded them. Because FYTW.

  14. You might think that “paying for your crimes” would refer to the bit about having to spend some years locked in a cage rather than being sent a bill for the cost of the cage, but consider that these are the same people who see nothing ironic in taxing the shit out of people who provide livelihoods for people and benefits for the general public by creating a popular, profitable business and calling it “giving back to the community”.

  15. “While I agree that this power should be used sparingly and judiciously, there are circumstances when it is warranted,” Rauner said in a veto statement, citing serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was sued by Illinois in 1993 to recover $141,000 in proceeds from the sales of Gacy’s paintings while behind bars.




    There are *no* circumstances where this is ever warranted. None. Period. You don’t want to foot the bill for locking people up – don’t lock them up then.

    You can start by releasing all the ‘drug offenders’ – that ought to cut costs fairly significantly on its own.

    But seriously, no decent human being is going to lock up even the most foul and depraved criminal and then *charge him for the privilege*.

  16. doesn’t suing inmates suggest that state is somehow loaning them money so they can incarcerate them? worst loan ever.

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