In a case currently before the Illinois Supreme Court, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) is suing one of its own inmates to recoup the costs of his incarceration. Although the inmate has only $11,000 to his name, IDOC’s bill comes out to nearly half a million dollars. Despite having already garnished 3% of his $2-a-day wage for the past three decades, IDOC now wants to go after the savings he accumulated during his time in prison and had hoped to pass on to his daughter.
Capturing the unfairness of the IDOC’s actions, one of the justices put it best when he asked incredulously, “Is this court honestly to believe that punishing more diligent, hardworking and responsible inmates is what the legislature intended?”
There are several reasons why going after people in the criminal justice system for money makes bad policy. First, suing for the costs of incarceration discourages inmates from participating in prison employment programs, in direct opposition to rehabilitation efforts. These programs provide inmates with something constructive to do with their time, valuable job training, and technical skills. There is also an economic incentive for participation in the form of wages, however modest they may be. If inmates feel the wages they earn while working in prison will be taken to pay for their incarceration, this important incentive disappears. IDOC sues only if they believe the prisoner has assets to seize, so prisoners may feel it is in their best interest to not generate any income at all.
Second, even if an inmate decides to participate in prison employment, IDOC’s policy discourages them from saving, one of the most basic components of financial empowerment. Studies have shown that incarceration reduces an individual’s post-prison earnings by about forty percent annually. In addition to reduced wages, serving time greatly reduces a person’s ability to move up the economic ladder; only two percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are able to advance from the bottom fifth of earnings to the top fifth, as compared to fifteen percent for the general public. Faced with such harsh economic prospects after release, prisoners in employment programs should be encouraged to save so they can begin practicing the positive financial habits necessary for future economic stability. IDOC’s policy sends the wrong message to inmates and ignores how financial literacy can be an essential part of successful rehabilitation.
Finally, the money that IDOC collects from inmates is a drop in the massive bucket that is Illinois’ correctional budget. It costs a little over a billion dollars each year to keep people in prison in Illinois, almost all of which will never be reimbursed. Out of a prison population of over 45,000, only about twenty cases a year are filed to seek reimbursement from defendants whose assets exceed the $10,000 limit. In 2010 IDOC received $9,876 in court-ordered reimbursement payments. Seizing prisoners’ savings will do little to cover incarceration costs and will only further disenfranchise people who have left prison.
Illinois’ criminal justice system seeks not only the costs of incarceration, but also fines, fees, and other financial obligations. These obligations range from $5 to $200, some of which have nothing to do with the costs of the person’s involvement with the criminal justice system. For example, a person convicted of the lowest level drug offense must automatically pay $100 to fund hospital trauma centers and $50 to a performance-enhancing drug testing fund. Limited consideration is given to the inmate’s ability to pay these fines, creating increased economic hardship and debt. Such debt follows prisoners after they have been released, affecting their income, credit score, and ultimately their ability to reintegrate.
In the case of IDOC’s lawsuit, the inmate’s frugality caused a $455,000 judgment to be entered against him, suggesting that IDOC should reconsider its incentives. Good criminal justice policy should incentivize long-term planning and rehabilitation, and incarcerated individuals should be encouraged to—not punished for—saving and being financially responsible.
This blog post was coauthored by Kelly Ward.