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."