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You Paid for It: The Cost of FOIA

SPRINGFIELD -- Here at WCIA-3, when we Dig Deeper into issues for you, we often have to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
SPRINGFIELD -- Here at WCIA-3, when we Dig Deeper into issues for you, we often have to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Under the law, we can get documents and records from public offices. That transparency is what helps us find waste, fraud and corruption. But, some people are taking advantage of the law and using your tax dollars to do it. WCIA-3's Ashley Michels takes a closer look at how You Paid for It.

Every time you see us do this, it probably means we filed a FOIA request. We use them to keep tabs on what's going on behind the scenes of government.

Lawyer Don Craven says that freedom is what keeps the system running smoothly.

"The fundamental base of a democratic republic is an educated electorate."

FOIA isn't just for the media though. Anyone can file a request for anything like how much the state spends on its electric bill or even a person's criminal history. But, the Sangamon County Sheriff's Department says there's a big flaw in the system which is wasting your tax dollars.

"A lot of inmates here in the jail, file constant FOIA requests against us, and the things they ask for are a little bit questionable."

Mostly, their booking photos.

"They ask for all of their mugshots and they ask for other inmates' mugshots. Many of them have dozens in our system, so they find it quite amusing, on occasion, to pass them out and show everybody how they've changed over the years. It has nothing to do with their case. They don't care about that this will help with my defense. This is just about wanting to see something."

He says the problem started when lawmakers loosened the state's transparency rules a few years ago. Since then, so many requests pour in each day, they've had to hire two extra staff members.

"If we average 300 inmates a day and they all begin to file these things, it's a lot of manpower."

Craven says the system isn't perfect, but it's necessary.

"That's the cost of democracy and despite those financial burdens, the provision of public records remains a fundamental purpose of our form of government. In other words, do it."

In Sangamon County alone, inmates file more than 1,000 records requests each year. Each one can take an hour or more to fill, leaving Chief FOIA Officer Michael Walton with almost no time to do anything else.

"I spend extra hours every day at work because I have to keep my regular work done plus Freedom of Information."

Walton says he doesn't mind because he thinks people should have access to public information.

"If you want to know how many times was Mike Walton arrested, you've got a right to know that, you know? But, some of the things people ask for, it's, you just wonder, especially over in the jail, why do they want that? I don't know what they do with it unless they wallpaper the walls with pictures."

The problem he says is those extra hours are often for nothing.

"We've got boxes and boxes of Freedom of Information that have never been picked up."

In once case, the staff spent an entire week pulling documents for an inmate who never came back to pick them up.

"It's frustrating on our end because, now, it's not just we're out the paper and the ink, but it's our manpower. We have to have the information ready for these people within five days, but nothing happens if they don't pick it up."

That's why Sangamon County officials are asking lawmakers to revisit the FOIA laws and put inmates on the exclusion list.

"We're trying to balance our want to be transparent versus the time consuming process this takes."

A proposal Craven says goes too far.

"Are there tweaks to the system that could be taken? Sure, but do we want to exclude a class of citizens from having the ability to find public documents that they want for some reason? I don't think we want to do that. I don't think we want government in the business of deciding the reason I want a public document is a good reason and the reason you want a public document is a bad reason."

This is not a problem exclusive to Sangamon County. The Illinois Department of Corrections says a clear majority of its FOIA requests come from inmates as well. Other law enforcement agencies in the area say they don't keep track of who requests a FOIA file.
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