Illinois is ratcheting up lawsuits against inmates to pay for their room and board

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The state of Illinois has been pursuing lawsuits against its own inmates to pay for their room and board, the Chicago Tribune reports.


The lawsuits are designed both to help fund operations and make convicts feel a financial pinch. But often, the paper writes, the suits hinder the ability of parolees to get back on their feet once their out. From the Tribune:

The lawsuits, in some cases, target convicted murderers or sex offenders serving lengthy prison terms. Some inmates will never get out; others will be released when they are elderly. But many of the lawsuits target less serious offenders who have earned or come into relatively modest sums of money, whether through an inheritance, a trust fund or, as in Melton's case, the settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit.


"If you don't have a way to support yourself, you go to the underground economy. That's criminal, and you go back to prison," Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People's Law Center, which provides legal assistance to inmates, told the Tribune. "That's horrible public policy."

Charging inmates for their own incarceration is not new: so-called "pay-to-stay" fees have been around for at least 40 years, and are now on the books in at least 41 states, according to NPR.

But these standard fees are different from lawsuits, over which states have even more discretion. But the number of such suits targeting inmates has climbed recently in Illinois, the Tribune says. In 2012 and 2013, there were just two lawsuits; through the first 10 months of this year, there have been 11. The reasons for the increase aren't entirely clear, but the article suggests the state goes after inmates who may have unexpectedly come into money; one inmate was sued not long after he learned he'd inherited nearly $14,000.

In a statement to the Tribune, the state's attorney general office said it tries to balance the needs of inmates with the amount of money the department is seeking, and is willing to work with inmates to reach settlements. But parolees interviewed by the Tribune said they were unaware they could negotiate suit amounts.


Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan released her own statement suggesting state legislators may want to reevaluate the policy entirely. "The Legislature should revisit whether this law is appropriate," she said. "These recoveries may raise roadblocks to former inmates trying to lead successful lives out of prison."

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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