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State Making it Harder for Ex-Cons to Go Straight

Individuals integrating back into society face new challenges

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on January 19, 2016.

By David M. Shapiro

Imagine spending years in prison and finally being released, only to be pursued in court again — this time by a government lawyer determined to wipe you out by collecting the costs of locking you up.

A growing number of Illinois parolees now face this surreal reality because the Department of Corrections and Attorney General Lisa Madigan have started to enforce the Illinois “pay to stay” statute with unprecedented vigor. There are rare cases of great wealth — think Bernie Madoff — where a law like this makes sense, but state officials are abusing their power by bringing the hammer down on regular Joes.

Take Johnny Melton. He settled a lawsuit over his mother’s death for $31,690. The money was going to help him get back on his feet after a 15-month prison term on a drug conviction. But the State sued him for the cost of his prison stay, took most of the money, and let him die broke, according to news reports.

Destroying people financially when they get out of prison is a good way to make them commit more crimes. People who walk out of the prison gate immediately face some of the most difficult life decisions — where to live, how to repair family relationships, how to earn a livelihood — all at once. They do so while crippled by the effects of incarceration, which usually include employers reluctant to hire job-seekers with criminal records, prison job training that is all but non-existent, onerous parole conditions, little or no support structure, the ongoing trauma of having been incarcerated, and diminished capacity to navigate daily life.

Is it any wonder that about half of the prisoners Illinois releases every year are back in prison within three years?In the rare cases where prisoners have a nest egg, society is better off for it because financial resources can make rejoining the community somewhat easier. Snatching financial security sends parolees a clear message: We want you to fail.It is questionable whether seizing assets in this matter saves money at all. Tax dollars the state spends on courts and lawyers must be discounted from what the state recovers. Moreover, anything that encourages recidivism is a blow to state finances and the economy. According to the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, each act of recidivism costs the state $118,746.

It is also likely that the “pay to stay” law contributes to prison violence. When a jury finds that a prisoner was brutalized by another prisoner or a correctional officer, the state can take the verdict back through the “pay to stay” statute. That reality diminishes incentives for the Department of Corrections to keep prisoners safe.

Corrections Director John Baldwin and Attorney General Madigan have the power to end this practice today. Baldwin could stop sending these cases to the Attorney General, or Madigan could simply refuse to litigate them. The question now is whether either of them has the wisdom and the guts to shelve the unjust law.

- David M. Shapiro is a clinical assistant professor of law and attorney for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, Chicago.

Topics: Chicago, Media, Opinion

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