With Veto, Illinois Governor Makes Prisoners Keep Paying for Their Stay

by | August 22, 2016

By Steve Mills and Todd Lighty

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Friday used his amendatory veto power to rewrite a bill that would have ended the state's growing practice of suing prison inmates to recover the costs of their incarceration -- effectively killing the legislation, according to the bill's two sponsors.

The bill from state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, now goes back to the General Assembly with Rauner's addition of a financial threshold that would be determined by officials at the Illinois Department of Corrections. Inmates who have less than the threshold in their bank or prison accounts would be shielded from the controversial lawsuits.

The General Assembly can accept Rauner's rewrite, override it or let it die. Biss and Cassidy said Friday they likely do not have the votes to override the veto.

"The bill is dead now because of the governor's actions, and that is a travesty," Biss said Friday, noting that the bill had passed the Senate and House with a narrow margin. "He killed a bill that would have eliminated a wasteful and immoral program."

Rauner, in a message with his veto, said that while he recognized that the lawsuits could make it more difficult for some inmates to rejoin society, he wanted to prevent offenders -- particularly violent offenders with "significant assets" -- from profiting from their crimes.

He pointed to John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who tried to sell his paintings before he was executed in 1994, as an example.

"While I agree that this power should be used sparingly and judiciously," Rauner said, "there are circumstances when it is warranted."

Cassidy, though, said state law already prohibits inmates from profiting from their crimes, making Rauner's rewrite of the bill unnecessary.

Cassidy said that if anybody should be able to sue prison inmates for their assets, it should be crime victims and not the state.

"He said he wants to eliminate wasteful programs and he wants to reform our criminal justice system," Cassidy said of the governor after she learned of the amendatory veto. "This runs counter to that. ... This has nothing to do with criminals profiting from their crimes."

Illinois is one of at least 43 states that allows officials to try to recoup what often are called room-and-board fees from prisoners and parolees. Critics say such lawsuits recover little money, are overly punitive and make it more difficult for prisoners to get back on their feet after their release. And a Tribune story in November showed the lawsuits often targeted inmates with little money and few prospects.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose office filed the lawsuits following referrals from prison officials, supported the legislation, saying the lawsuits raised little money and raised difficult moral questions. The corrections department took no position on the measure.

An IDOC spokeswoman said it was premature to comment on Rauner's move before legislators have a chance to act on the change.

The law that allowed the state to sue prisoners and parolees for the cost of their incarceration dates to 1982. Corrections officials do not appear to have used it much until last year, when the number of lawsuits jumped from two each in 2012 and 2013 to 11 in 2015.

Among the cases the Tribune focused on was that of Johnny Melton, who served 15 months for a drug conviction. Prison officials targeted Melton after he received nearly $32,000 from the settlement of a lawsuit over his mother's death in a nursing home, according to records. When he was released from prison early last year, Melton was forced to go to a homeless shelter and applied for food stamps.

He died in June destitute, according to his family.

In other cases, the state sued prisoners who received relatively modest sums of money, whether through an inheritance, a trust fund or, like Melton, a wrongful death settlement. The state has recovered more than $500,000 since 2010, but about $415,000 of that was obtained from just two prisoners. The amount the state recovered was a fraction of the prison system's $1.5 billion budget.

(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune