Illinois sets out to punish former inmates into poverty

Backhanded policies are setting  Illinois on a path towards increased recidivism.

An arcane law is being given new life in Illinois, and the results are coming at a serious social cost. A recent investigation has revealed that the state of Illinois has been ramping up efforts to sue inmates for “fees” related to their tenure in prison. While they claim to be targeting only those who can “afford” it, outside scrutiny has revealed that is simply not the case. People like Melvin Moore who inherited a whopping $14,000 he had planned to use to ease his re-entry, was sued by the state for $338,650. Johnny Melton who’d received roughly $30,000 as a result of a settlement over his mother’s death, died homeless and destitute after a similar suit was filed against him.

Such laws have been “on the books” for many years, and exist in many states.  But recently the number of claims on behalf of the state have jumped significantly in Illinois. Whereas two lawsuits were filed between 2012-2013, at least ten were filed in 2015. And the timing seems particularly absurd, given that the state has among the highest levels of recidivism in the country; Illinois seems unable to comprehend the concept of cause and effect when it comes to the cycle of poverty and crime. Because as long as this practice remains on the books anywhere, it serves to undermine the ethos of rehabilitation and reduction of recidivism.

Even the briefest glance at the demographics of prisoners makes clear that they tend to be from marginalized backgrounds, be it financially or socially. And just as with the extortionist fee regimes of private prison banking and telecommunications companies, the idea that you are punishing only an inmate with these policies is beyond naive. Because for every individual incarcerated, there is a family left behind, dependants who are scraping together their pennies to keep things afloat, to stay in contact, to try and right past wrongs. These are who we punish with these kinds of laws.

It keeps coming back to the same situation. When we strip away everything from these individuals, when we push them into the streets without access to food or housing, why are we surprised when they reoffend, or worse? When we send individuals to prison, that is the punishment—we take away their freedom. And to what end? Half a million dollars won, and for what? It’s unlikely that even covers the costs for litigation. And guaranteed, the costs associated with increased recidivism will far outweigh any gains from such frivolous suits.

What do we think is going to happen when prisoners re-enter society? Because nearly all of them will. Do we want them to have the tools and social supports to succeed? You simply cannot be serious about rehabilitation and reducing recidivism when you remove the means by which these individuals can be to do so. We all know the old definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result; the state of Illinois is taking it up a notch, doing something they know doesn’t work, and then making sure it works even less.