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Stop Suing Ex-prisoners to Recover Room-and-Board Costs

Most people don't know that Illinois regularly sues former prisoners for the costs of their incarceration.

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Illinois prisons are in crisis. They are among the most overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded in the nation — but Gov. Bruce Rauner has established himself as a barrier to serious reform.

The governor recently vetoed a bill with the potential to reduce recidivism. It would end the state's practice of destroying the finances of former prisoners by going after their assets to recover the costs of incarcerating them. The bill had passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support. Even the Department of Corrections had no objection to it.

Most people don't even know that Illinois regularly sues former prisoners for the costs of their incarceration, and because virtually everyone who ends up in prison is poor, the state recoups very little from these cases — a total of $355,000 in fiscal year 2015. In contrast, the prison budget is over $1.5 billion per year.

In the rare cases when recently released prisoners have a modest nest egg — for example, from a concerned family member offering a second chance or a court recovery from being abused while incarcerated — Illinois' "pay-to-stay" law allows the state to bring a financially devastating lawsuit to recover the costs of locking up the person. The law is a kick in the gut to people struggling to start a new life, and its impact on the state budget, when one factors in the administrative cost of the lawsuits, is negligible.

The reasons that Gov. Rauner gave for his amendatory veto demonstrate that he does not understand the bill. He expressed concerns about criminals who attempt to profit from their crimes. But other laws already prevent prisoners from profiting from their crimes, and nothing in the bill Rauner vetoed would change that prohibition. The bill also did not change the right of victims to sue any prisoner with money for damages caused by their crimes. The bill only eliminated lawsuits by the state to recoup the costs of incarceration.

When it comes to Rauner's prison policy, this substitution of empty rhetoric for substantive policy changes is par for the course. The governor has recognized the prison crisis, at least in words. He appointed a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission with the direction to devise reforms that would reduce Illinois' prison population by 25 percent over the next 10 years. However, the governor's actions have fallen far short of his rhetoric. To date, his commission, which was given a deadline of July 2015, has yet to issue recommendations that would accomplish the target 25 percent reduction.

Meanwhile, other Republican governors have taken serious steps toward prison reform. Rauner's lack of focus and vision makes him a dinosaur in the party. His failure to lead and his resort to death-by-committee have made a mockery of his pledge to run the government more like a business.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan must stop filing pay-to-stay lawsuits. If she were to end these suits, it would save the state money by reducing recidivism. All eyes are on Madigan — will she do what Rauner should have done?

Alan Mills is executive director of the Uptown People's Law Center. David M. Shapiro is director of appellate litigation at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law where he is a clinical assistant professor of law.