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With a national, bipartisan belief in the need for criminal justice reform, Illinois lawmakers have an opportunity to enact long-overdue improvements. Governor JB Pritzker and legislative leaders have proven their...

With a national, bipartisan belief in the need for criminal justice reform, Illinois lawmakers have an opportunity to enact long-overdue improvements. Governor JB Pritzker and legislative leaders have proven their commitment to making Illinois a more fair and just state in several important areas. But, the need for bolder, more comprehensive reforms is clear. 

A joint House and Senate committee will meet Thursday, February 13 to discuss “the State of Criminal Justice Reform in Illinois.” This is an important step toward advancing justice. Advocates and policymakers agree it is time to apply knowledge derived from research and best practices rather than rely on the fear-based practices of the past.

Starting in the 1970s, Illinois succumbed to national panic about crime and enacted draconian laws that resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color, especially children, for decades, often for their entire lives. We sentenced young people to die in prison, and continue to do so, even though we now know such harsh sentencing does not meaningfully reduce crime. As a result, Illinois has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the country, as well as continued problems with crime. 

Illinois’s state prisons house close to 40,000 inmates, about half of whom have been labeled violent based on simplistic definitions and have received our state’s most severe sentences. We know that due to the structure of our criminal code, a conviction for a violent offense does not always mean a person actually committed or even planned to commit violence. We know some of these people simply had, but didn’t use, a gun. We know some of them were charged for felony-murder and accountability, neither of which require any planning or desire to commit violence. We also know that youth are more likely than adults to engage in risky group behavior. Thus, we know a significant proportion of our state’s so-called violent offenders are fundamentally not hardened, irredeemable criminals; they are kids who made mistakes. 

As of 2018, 1,940 people were serving life or de facto life (40 years or more) for crimes that occured before they were 26 years old. Nearly 69 percent of these people are Black. Together, those youth have 67,471 years left to serve. This isn’t just morally abhorrent; those 67,471 “bed years” put more than 1.7 billion dollars of strain on Illinois’s budget. 

It will be tempting for the joint committee to focus on non-violent offenses. Just the words “violent offender” put a chilling effect on discussion of reform, despite what we know about the human beings who are mistakenly given that label. But today, we can not flinch. The most significant challenges in our state’s sentencing system stem from overreliance on policies that remove discretion when reviewing individuals convicted of violent offenses. We must reintegrate consideration that these people are capable of rehabilitation. 

Reforming our state’s harsh, ineffective sentencing laws is deeply personal to the Restore Justice team. Half of our staff and many of our board members have been directly impacted. Wendell Robinson served more than 25 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) for his involvement in a shooting that happened when he was just 17 years old. He originally received a life without parole sentence and thought he would die in prison. But, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller decision gave Wendell a chance at freedom. He now works full time at Restore Justice on behalf of the many men he left behind who also deserve second chances.

Here’s how Illinois could right the wrongs of our past “tough on crime” sentencing, provide second chances, and weave fairness and compassion into the fabric of our state.

Reform Extreme Sentencing Laws

When Marshan Allen was a teenager he received a life without parole sentence for felony-murder. Marshan stole a car at his older brother’s request after two men robbed the brother of drugs. In an attempt to get the stolen product back, two of the brother’s friends approached, and eventually shot and killed the other men. Marshan didn’t pull the trigger. He hadn’t planned to kill anyone. He was just 15 years old. But for the Court’s Miller decision, Marshan, now Restore Justice’s Policy Director, would still be incarcerated. Illinois has one of the broadest felony-murder statutes in the country. It’s one example of how we’ve clung to extreme sentences that destroy young lives and rip apart families and communities. In addition to reforming the felony-murder statute, here are other steps Illinois should take: 

  • Make gun enhancements discretionary for everyone. In 2015, the Illinois General Assembly took a bold step and made firearm enhancements discretionary for juveniles. Still, for those 18 and older, Illinois’s mandatory gun enhancements are the longest in the entire country. Judges are required to add 15, 20, or 25 years to the prison sentences of defendants convicted of certain felonies if the defendant possessed or discharged a firearm.

  • Abolish juvenile life without parole sentences. While the General Assembly and former Governor Bruce Rauner previously banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, it’s time to ban the use of discretionary life without parole for youth. Today, these sentences are prohibited in 27 states and the District of Columbia. Abolishing such sentences would bring Illinois into line with an abundance of brain development research and the Supreme Court’s directive to consider age in sentencing. 

  • Abolish mandatory minimum sentences for people younger than 18. Allow judges the discretion to decide an appropriate sentence for a juvenile based on relevant statutory factors. 

  • Review and amend other mandatory sentencing practices, such as mandatory consecutive (rather than concurrent) sentences and sentencing ranges that leave someone incarcerated long after they’ve made amends and become capable of successfully returning home.

Ensure Meaningful Opportunities for Release

Illinois should ensure people who are incarcerated have opportunities to demonstrate rehabilitation and work toward an earlier release. Restricting inmates’ ability to earn sentence reductions or parole teaches them—especially those who enter prison as children or young adults—that the system believes them to be beyond reform. Here are policies that would ensure people who pose no threat to their communities are able to go home: 

  • Implement a broader parole system that allows everyone, including adults, to prove they’ve been rehabilitated. There is no reason to continue incarcerating someone who poses no danger. 

  • Correctly apply “good time” sentencing credits to people sentenced before 1998. These inmates have been allowed to proactively earn time off their sentences through good behavior and participation in prison programming, however, it is not being correctly applied. 

  • Eliminate truth in sentencing and bring back “good time” for most people who are incarcerated, especially those imprisoned in their youth or early adulthood. Illinois eliminated “good time” in 1998. We should bring it back and let people who have earned college degrees, undergone substance abuse help, worked relevant jobs, and taken life skills courses earn additional credit toward early release. 

Correct Our Past Sentencing Mistakes

We need to provide relief to those already impacted by outdated laws. Illinois could allow people who were under 18 and received mandatory gun enhancements the opportunity to be resentenced, as those enhancements were made discretionary in 2017. 

Here are examples of how other states have addressed retroactivity in efforts to reduce prison populations: 

  • In 2018, California created a system to allow people previously convicted of felony-murder to be resentenced. In 2017, California created new parole opportunities for people previously sentenced in their youth to life in prison. The state has enacted other retroactive reforms, as well. 

  • In 2017, Louisiana restored parole eligibility for individuals convicted of second-degree murder who have served 40 or more years, granted parole eligibility to certain juvenile offenders sentenced to life for first- or second-degree murder who have served at least 25 years, and granted medical treatment furloughs to incarcerated persons with limited mobility. 

  • In 2016, Colorado granted early release time to youth sentenced as adults for class 1 felonies.

Improve Conditions Inside Prisons

Research shows harsh prison conditions do not reduce recidivism and can actually have the opposite effect. Most people who are incarcerated will eventually be released, and society is best served when time behind bars prepares people to live responsibly once released. Here are ways Illinois could improve prison conditions:

  • Protect inmates’ ability to communicate and visit with family and community. As phone calls have become more financially feasible for inmates in Illinois thanks to leadership in the General Assembly, access to phones has become a serious, and at times dangerous, issue. There are not enough functioning phones so calls have been reduced from 30 minutes to 20 minutes. IDOC should install more phones and reinstate the 30-minute call times.

  • Ensure people who are incarcerated are able to vote. The right to vote is a basic democratic principle, and towns throughout Illinois count inmates as part of their populations—even though inmates aren’t allowed to vote. 

  • Reduce the use of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement negatively impacts the mental and physical health of people who are incarcerated. It should be used sparingly and only when absolutely essential. 

  • Invest in prison programming that’s been proven to reduce recidivism. 

Stop Punishing Inmate’s Family Members

It’s important for the IDOC to ensure visits are possible. Visits are key to good behavior, rehabilitation, re-entry, and family stability (Prison Policy Initiative, 2015; the Minnesota Department of Corrections, 2011; Karen De Claire and Louise Dixon, 2011). 

But, these visits are difficult. Nearly two out of every three families with an incarcerated member are unable to meet their family’s basic needs, according to an Ella Baker Center for Human Rights study. Still, moms and dads, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles drive hundreds of miles and spend hundreds of dollars to make these visits happen. 

We need to ensure these families are treated with dignity. Currently, they have little to no redress when they are treated inhumanely in IDOC facilities. Restore Justice recently received an email from a concerned mother who brought her 10-year-old son to visit an incarcerated loved one. Prison staff searched the boy without the mother present, despite state law and her objections. We witnessed firsthand a mother turned away because of “inadequate underwear.” We watched as an elderly woman became incontinent after waiting too long to be escorted to the bathroom. 

Here’s how Illinois can support families: 

  • Make sure visitors have someone they can call when they are denied access or treated unfairly. Right now, visitors must rely on staff at a particular facility to address conflicts or concerns. These same staff members may be directly involved in the issue. A statewide point of contact could receive complaints, suggestions, and requests. 

  • Reduce the cost of items in vending machines. Families and other visitors pay 1.5 times more for the same items than prison staff does. In addition, the machines are often broken and left empty. The state should reduce that predatory markup and make sure machines are working and stocked. 

Be More Transparent 

Court and prison data collection, storage, and sharing is flawed and inconsistent throughout Illinois. The lack of accessible data obscures critical information about convictions that could have a profound impact on legislation, prison placement, and re-entry opportunities. We need to be able to review, compare, and understand all aspects of the system in order to decide what works and what needs to be reformed. Illinois should streamline and improve data collection and sharing processes.


Everyone deserves support for rehabilitation and a second chance at life. But, 50 years of harsh sentencing in Illinois has plundered communities of family members, of neighbors, and of people who could be fully contributing to society. We have a rare chance right now to move our state forward. We can right wrongs, release men and women who pose no threat to safety, and advance true fairness. Join Restore Justice in this essential, empowering work for a more compassionate Illinois.