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History of Illinois sentencing laws

Illinois has dramatically increased penalties and prison sentence lengths through laws passed in the late 1970s and 1990s. These sentencing laws have converged to create a system that applies extremely long prison terms. However, these laws – such as automatic transfer laws and “truth-in-sentencing” laws – are ineffective. In fact, research suggests policies like these lead to little or no reduction in crime or improved public safety.

These longer sentences, created by harsher sentencing laws combined with the reduction of meaningful chances for rehabilitation, have led to an increased prison population. In 1970, about 6,000 people were in Illinois Department of Corrections custody; by 2022, the number of people incarcerated increased nearly five times to more than 29,000. As a result of longer sentences, people are spending more of their lives incarcerated than at any other point in our state’s history.

The Illinois Department of Corrections is the largest state agency with the highest level of spending. How did we get here?

Transfers to Adult Court

  • Until 2016, children as young as 13 had to be transferred to adult court for certain crimes. Even now, under some circumstances, children who are 16 years old at the time the crime is committed must be transferred to adult court.
  • In Illinois, 17-year-olds enter adult court from the start; they don’t receive the benefits of a juvenile court proceeding.
  • Ninety-five percent of people serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as children never had an opportunity to have their cases considered by a juvenile court. Their cases were heard entirely in adult criminal courts.
  • Prosecutors may request discretionary transfers of younger children for specific crimes.
  • Once a child is in adult court, adult sentencing laws apply.
  • Once a child is in adult court, they can never again go back to juvenile court, even if charges are dropped or they are acquitted.

Life Without Parole Sentences

  • In 1978, Illinois abolished parole. It remains in the minority of states that do not have parole or early release from prison.
  • Today, most young people under the age of 21 are eligible for parole consideration because of laws that passed in 2019 and 2023. However, young people sentenced prior to these new laws will continue to serve life-without-parole sentences.
  • Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama decision, approximately 80% of individuals serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were children received mandatory sentences. 

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

  • A mandatory minimum is the shortest term a judge is legally able to give. 
  • Many felonies have their own distinct sentencing rules. For example, a conviction of homicide with two or more victims must result in a natural life sentence. Judges are not allowed to depart from that even if they feel a specific case and person deserve a different sentence. 
  • Mandatory minimums are a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing that take away judges’ discretion and lead to extreme sentencing without consideration of the individual circumstances of a case.
  • Certain laws may require additional sentencing on top of the mandatory minimums. For instance, firearm sentence enhancements require judges to add a range of 15 years to life to the sentences of people convicted of certain offenses.

Accountability Theory

  • In Illinois, it is legal for a person to be arrested, charged, and convicted of a crime they did not commit and also did not plan, agree, or intend to commit. They might not even have been present at the time of the crime. 
  • Accountability theory can be particularly unjust given the scientific evidence showing children’s susceptibility to peer pressure.
  • We don’t know how many individuals serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were children and young people were convicted based on a theory of accountability because Illinois’ criminal legal systems do not track accountability in the data.

Felony-Murder Rule

  • The felony-murder rule states that a person can be found guilty of felony murder if they or a co-defendant cause a death during the course of an underlying forcible felony.
  • People convicted of felony murder face the first-degree murder sentencing range – a minimum sentence of 20 years and, under certain circumstances, a maximum sentence of natural life.
  • Despite the varying degrees of involvement each person might have had in a crime, the felony-murder law blends individual actors together and convicts them all as a person who killed someone else. As such, there are people serving life in prison today, convicted under the felony-murder law, without any involvement in the associated murder. 
  • Before 2021, people could be convicted for deaths caused by third parties (such as store owners or police officers). The law changed in 2021 but was not applied retroactively. People in prison today were convicted of murder for deaths caused by third parties.

“Truth-in-Sentencing” Laws

  • Before 1998, people who were incarcerated in Illinois generally had the opportunity to earn “good time” credits and other recognition for positive behavior that allowed them to be released early – often halving their sentences. These policies promoted rehabilitation and helped to lower the prison population. 
  • A rise in punitive policies in the 1990s led to “truth-in-sentencing” laws that limited early release.
  • In Illinois, anyone convicted of first-degree murder must serve 100% of the sentence imposed. For most other serious crimes, people must serve at least 75-85% of their sentences and are only granted sentence credit at the discretion of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Firearm Sentence Enhancements

  • Illinois law adds a mandatory 15, 20, or 25 years to life to the sentences of people 18 and older who had firearms during the commission of certain felonies. 
  • The severity of enhancement is based on whether the firearm is discharged and if there is a death or grievous injury.
  • Illinois has the highest mandatory enhancement for possession in the U.S.. 
  • Mandatory firearm sentence enhancements make long prison sentences even longer.
  • In 2015, Illinois made firearm enhancements discretionary for people 17 and younger.