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The issues we work on to make Illinois safer, fairer and more compassionate

Illinois’ criminal legal system is punitive

For decades, Illinois has pursued a “tough-on-crime” approach to crafting its criminal legal and policy systems. These policies have funneled thousands of young people–some no older than fourteen or fifteen at the time of their offense–into prison for extreme lengths of time. Once imprisoned, they face inhumane conditions while being denied any meaningful avenue to rehabilitation or earned release. We work to untangle and undo the damage inflicted by these extreme policies on impacted people and their communities.

151% capacity

Illinois prisons are at 151% capacity

#1 in the U.S.

Significantly over capacity, Illinois prisons are #1 in the U.S. for overcrowding


In Illinois, four factors have converged to deprive children and young people in the adult criminal justice system of their liberty, their chance for rehabilitation, and their possibility of release.

  1. Illinois continues to transfer children to adult court, where most mandatory adult sentences apply to them;
  2. Illinois has systematically removed discretion in sentencing from judges, creating mandatory sentencing schemes that harm youth in the adult system;
  3. Between laws passed in the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, Illinois effectively eliminated the possibility of earned release for most people receiving long-term sentences, including those convicted as youth;
  4. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that Illinois’ prisons are at 151% capacity, the most overcrowded prison system in the nation, which shrinks the already small pool of available mental health, physical health, and rehabilitative services.


Evidence of meaningful change can be seen most clearly in recent US Supreme Court rulings on youth in the adult system, of which there have been an unprecedented 5 reform-minded judgements in the past decade. All say one thing clearly: kids are different.

But positive court decisions are just the beginning. Organizations across the nation must now untangle decades of extreme policies and undo the damage of year after year of budget shortfalls.

As a statewide group dedicated to advocating for those serving the state’s most extreme sentences, we aim to center the voices of those most harmed by Illinois’ unjust criminal legal policies by engaging system-impacted people in our work.

Restore Justice focuses our advocacy on three areas of law and policy: sentencing reform, prison conditions and practices, and meaningful pathways to release. We focus our work in these three primary areas to achieve the greatest impact not just for the people who serve Illinois’ most extreme sentences, but also for their loved ones and communities.

Our Focus Areas


In Illinois, a number of sentencing laws converge to create a system that consistently applies extremely long prison terms. While touted as a strategy to make our justice system more fair and effective, research shows that policies like these lead to little to no reduction in crime, while contributing heavily to overcrowded prisons. Restore Justice supports policies that would eliminate or reduce mandatory minimums, roll back firearm enhancements, and otherwise change the laws that rigidly increase sentence lengths or restrict judges from applying appropriate sentences.

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Prison Conditions and Practices

The human, social, and economic costs of our current prison system are intolerable. Restore Justice supports efforts to move Illinois corrections towards a model that values rehabilitation over punishment. This includes making healthcare more available for people who are incarcerated, increasing opportunities to participate in programs and education, allowing family and friends to visit their loved ones who are incarcerated more often, and reducing the use of solitary confinement as a punitive measure.

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In 1978, Illinois abolished the practice of parole, or early conditional release. Then, in 1998, the state passed so-called “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which restrict the ability of many people who are incarcerated to earn time off their sentences. This means many people who enter prison in Illinois lack opportunities to work towards their release. Restore Justice supports efforts to give rehabilitated people more meaningful pathways to earn release. Currently, that means restoring Illinois to its pre-1978 parole-for-release system, rolling back “truth-in-sentencing” laws, and creating opportunities for people serving extreme sentences to have another look at their sentence.

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