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Illinois Prison Wages Cannot be Attached to Satisfy Incarceration Costs

On June 16, 2011, the Illinois Supreme Court held that prison officials may not seize the wages a prisoner earns to satisfy the cost of incarceration. The Court’s unanimous ruling also vacated a judgment of more than $455,000 against an Illinois state prisoner for reimbursement of incarceration costs.

Kensley Hawkins has been imprisoned at the Stateville Correctional Center since July 1, 1983. During that time he worked in a prison industry program assembling furniture. The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) filed suit against Hawkins on March 30, 2005, pursuant to a state statute that allows the IDOC to seek reimbursement for the cost of his incarceration.

Over the relevant time period, Hawkins had money from his wages deposited in his prison account. He had also established an account at an outside bank, which contained around $11,000 at the time the IDOC’s lawsuit was filed.

The state circuit court attached all but $4,000 from the bank account, as the Code of Civil Procedure exempts that amount from collection. Ultimately, the circuit court entered a $455,203.14 judgment against Hawkins for his incarceration costs, but precluded the IDOC from satisfying the judgment from Hawkins’ bank account.

Both parties appealed. In affirming the judgment in favor of the IDOC, the appellate court held that prison officials could attach Hawkins’ bank account to satisfy the judgment.

The Illinois Supreme Court granted review as to two issues: 1) May the IDOC satisfy a judgment with wages earned from a prison work program when a portion of those wages has already been applied to the cost of the prisoner’s incarceration, and 2) Was the action properly authorized under law?

The questions were a matter of statutory interpretation, as the case arose out of several related sections of the state’s Unified Code of Corrections. Specifically at issue were sections 3-7-6 and 3-12-5 of the Code.

The Supreme Court found that while 3-7-6 allows the IDOC to seek reimbursement of incarceration costs from a prisoner’s assets, 3-12-5 creates a class of assets that are not subject to a reimbursement action. The Court held that some assets may not be used to satisfy a judgment under 3-7-6.

The statute does not describe the nature of such non-attachable assets, but the Court noted that 3-12-5 requires a prisoner to contribute a “portion” of his prison wages for incarceration costs, and the IDOC must deposit all other wages into the prisoner’s account. Hawkins had paid 3% of his wages – or $750.60 – toward his incarceration costs, based on the percentage set by the IDOC.

The Supreme Court said to allow the IDOC to confiscate all of a prisoner’s wages would not only render the language of 3-12-5 meaningless, but would contravene the legislative intent of ensuring that prisoners learn skills and save money for their release.

Permitting the IDOC to prevail would produce “a result that is absurd, unjust, and that our analysis indicates was not contemplated by the legislature. We therefore reject that interpretation. Instead, we hold that once a committed person’s wages have been properly subjected to the offset provision of section 3-12-5 of the Code, the remaining wages are not subject to collection under section 3-7-6.”

“Work may be its own reward for some, but probably not for most inmates of the Department of Corrections,” wrote Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier in a concurring opinion. “Once inmates realized that the extra work necessary to generate savings would benefit only the Department of Corrections, not them, they would quickly reevaluate the utility of prison employment.”

In addition to vacating the order to attach Hawkins’ bank account, the Court also vacated the $455,203.14 judgment. As Hawkins’ bank account contained funds that were generated from his prison wages, it could not be an asset from which the IDOC can seek reimbursement of incarceration costs.

While the IDOC had a reasonable belief that it could file suit against Hawkins, the Supreme Court noted that prison officials would no longer have such a reasonable belief following the ruling in this case in regard to other actions seeking reimbursement of incarceration costs. See: Illinois v. Hawkins, 952 N.E.2d 624 (Ill. 2011).

Related legal case

llinois v. Hawkins


 

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