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Biss legislation barring prison room-and-board lawsuits heads to governor

biss052516A measure that would bar state government from suing inmates and parolees for the cost of their prison room and board will go to Gov. Bruce Rauner for his signature.

The legislation, sponsored by Senator Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) and Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), was approved by members of the Illinois House on Wednesday. It previously was approved by the Senate.

“Gov. Rauner has the opportunity to put an end to a practice that is unfair, overly punitive and fails the cost-benefit test. The state collects far less from these lawsuits than it costs to pursue them,” Biss said.

Senate Bill 2465 would prohibit the Illinois Department of Corrections from suing current and former inmates to recoup the cost of their incarceration. Illinois has had a law allowing the state to sue inmates since 1982, but it was rarely used until recently. A Chicago Tribune investigation raised questions about the practice.

Illinois has discretion in determining which inmates and parolees to sue. Most of them are poor and had received modest inheritances or civil settlements involving private matters or their arrest.

The state has recovered about a half-million dollars since 2010, but most of it was from two inmates.

“By pursuing these lawsuits, the state sends the wrong message about what it means for inmates to pay their debt to society,” Biss said. “Rather than encouraging them to make a fresh start when they’re released from prison, Illinois is choosing to push them toward a life of poverty, reliance on government support or recidivism.

“That’s the wrong approach, and I hope Gov. Rauner will see it that way, too.”

Biss advances stingray guidelines for police

biss stingrayPolice in Illinois would have better guidance about the use of cell tower simulators – or stingrays – and the responsible collection of cell data under legislation that unanimously passed in the Illinois Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 2343, sponsored by Senator Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), would regulate the police use of cell tower simulators for surveillance. These simulators, more commonly known as stingray devices, act as cell phone towers and trick phones in a particular area into thinking they are connecting to a phone tower operated by a service provider.

Police can use the fake tower to determine someone’s location, the serial numbers of phones in the area and more. In addition to collecting data on targeted individuals, police can collect data on dozens or hundreds of other innocent people in the process as well.

“As advances in technology enable police to more efficiently investigate and solve crimes, it’s important that we help them to know they are following state law and the parameters of the Constitution,” Biss said.

“Additionally, we must adopt measures that help to ensure privacy for citizens who have done nothing wrong but may find that data from their cell phones was collected and stored by law enforcement for no legitimate legal reason.”

Senate Bill 2343 now goes to the House for consideration.

Biss’ prisoner lawsuit legislation passes in the Senate

biss 040616Legislation designed to help inmates emerge from prison with the means to get back on their feet passed out of the Illinois Senate Tuesday.

Senate Bill 2465, sponsored by Senator Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) would prohibit the Illinois Department of Corrections from suing current and former inmates to recoup the cost of their room and board while in prison. The legislation passed by a vote of 32-19 in the Senate. It now goes to the Illinois House for consideration.

“This is a dangerous practice that can make it almost impossible for people who have paid their debt to society be able to get back on their feet, find housing and seek employment,” Biss said.

Illinois has had a law allowing the state to sue inmates since 1982, but it was rarely used until recently. According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, there were two such lawsuits in 2012 and two in 2013, but the number jumped to 13 in 2015.

Illinois has discretion in determining which current and former inmates to sue. Most are poor. In some cases the state sued them after learning they had received modest inheritances or settlements from civil lawsuit involving private matters or regarding their arrest or incarceration.

The state has recovered about a half-million dollars since 2010, but most of it was from two inmates.

Biss noted that the return is not worth the state’s investment in these expensive lawsuits, particularly when the costs of recidivism and reliance on taxpayer-funded programs, such as food stamps or housing assistance, are factored in.

“It’s not as though most of them are millionaires. We’re talking mainly about people with relatively modest inheritances or court settlements that the state is going after,” Biss said.

“While it’s appropriate to assign financial penalties along with sentencing for certain types of crimes, the question is whether we want to rely on ad hoc lawsuits as a way to pay for the cost of prisons. It’s not consistent with how government should work, nor is it in keeping with the principles of criminal justice and the idea of second chances.”

Biss prison lawsuit bill unanimously moves out of committee

biss oped0216A proposal by Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) to prohibit the state of Illinois from suing inmates for the cost of their incarceration passed out of committee unanimously this morning.

The legislation, Senate Bill 2465, now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

The bill calls for an end to the Illinois Department of Corrections practice of suing inmates and parolees to recoup the cost of their room and board while in prison.

“This legislation rights a wrong that is being inflicted upon a segment of Illinois’ population that tends to be overlooked or ignored,” Biss said. “I look forward to full passage of Senate Bill 2465.”

Most of the inmates targeted by the state’s lawsuits are poor. In some cases the state sued them after learning they had received modest inheritances or settlements from civil lawsuit involving private matters or regarding their arrest or incarceration.

Read more about the issue.

Senator Daniel Biss

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9th Senate District

Years served: 2011 - 2012 (House); 2013 - 2018 (Senate)

Committee assignments: Education; Environment and Conservation; Executive Appointments; Human Services; Labor (Chairperson); Revenue.

Biography: Full-time legislator; former University of Chicago math professor; doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and undergraduate degree from Harvard University. Served one term in the House before his election to the Senate. Resides in Evanston with his wife, Karin, and their children, Elliot and Theodore. Co-chair of a bipartisan pensions working group in the House and chair of the Digital Divide Elimination Advisory Committee.