Since the 1970’s, the steep increase in Illinois’ incarcerated population has been driven primarily not by any rise in crime, but by the drastic escalation in the length of sentences imposed by elected officials. As a result, more people spend more of their lives incarcerated than at any point in our state’s history.

Today’s excessively long prison stays are the result of punitive sentencing laws enacted over the past several decades in Springfield. Year after year, Illinois’ huge investments in the prison system - more than $1.5 billion annually - are misspent warehousing people in harmful conditions for needlessly long periods of time. At the same time, tens of thousands of Illinois residents are required by law to live under surveillance by corrections agents for years after their release, resulting in far too many people being sent back to prison.

Perhaps no single policy has caused the length of prison stays to balloon more than so-called “truth in sentencing” laws, which place arbitrary restrictions on people’s ability to earn time off their sentences. Previously, people sentenced to prison in Illinois could earn sentence credit for good behavior and participation in programs. Most people were even eligible to reduce their sentence by as much as 50%, which allowed them to return to their families or back to work quicker.

But in 1998, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law that severely restricted the amount of sentence credit that people convicted of certain crimes were allowed to earn and prohibited people convicted of murder from receiving any sentence credit at all. At the time, many legislators believed that judges would counterbalance the new laws by adjusting sentences downward, and therefore, the length of prison stays would not increase dramatically.

That simply did not happen. In fact, there was only a small decline in the sentences imposed by courts, which was far outstripped by the new law’s requirement that people serve a much greater percentage of their sentence. The net effect of truth in sentencing in Illinois was to keep people in prison far longer for the same crimes.

Illinois’ move toward so-called “truth in sentencing” and similar laws was grounded in a mistaken belief that locking up people for longer periods of time would make communities safer. But research has shown that idea to be incorrect. Increased incarceration has a marginal and diminishing effect on decreasing community crime, but instead comes at a heavier social and economic cost that can even cause crime to increase.

Overly long sentences isolate individuals from their families and leave them unprepared to successfully re-integrate into their communities. Beyond the harm to incarcerated people themselves, long-term imprisonment shatters families and forces children to grow up without parents, grandparents, caregivers, and more. These punishing policies overwhelmingly impact families who live in segregated, low-income urban neighborhoods already reeling from decades of disinvestment, and exacerbate the social problems that lead people to commit crimes in the first place.

To decrease these kinds of assaults on low-income and communities of color in Illinois, legislators in our state must roll back “truth in sentencing” laws to reduce the excessive length of prison stays, while also incentivizing incarcerated people to follow rules and take advantage of prison programs that can help prepare them for successful reentry. This includes:

  • People currently required to serve 75% of the sentence imposed should be eligible to reduce length of stay to 50% - the same as incarcerated people not subject to truth in sentencing laws.
  • Those mandated by law to serve at least 85% of their sentences should be eligible to reduce the time served to around 72% of the sentence.
  • People convicted of murder--currently required to serve 100% of the prison sentence imposed by the court--should be eligible to earn sentence credit resulting in a length of stay of 75% of the sentence.

Illinois must also reduce the length of post-release supervision which, according to a 2019 John Howard Association report,“does not appear to measurably improve public safety, either by preventing or detecting crime through surveillance or by providing rehabilitative support to people leaving prison to assist in reentry and reduce recidivism.”

Currently, everyone released from prison must remain under supervision by the Department of Corrections for a lengthy period of “mandatory supervised release” (MSR) before their sentence will be fully discharged. The length of supervision is determined according to the crime for which the individual was incarcerated—not an individualized assessment of whether the person actually needs to be supervised.

While on MSR, a person must comply with a long list of conditions, which may include allowing parole agents to inspect and search their residence whenever they want, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, and avoiding contact with certain people or places. A person on this kind of supervision may even be ordered to wear an electronic monitoring shackle that effectively incarcerates them in their own home, despite evidence that electronic surveillance has “minimal effect on reducing recidivism and changing criminal behavior.”

If a person is found to have violated any condition of their release, they may be summarily returned to prison on a “technical violation.” In 2019 alone, over 9,000 individuals on MSR—57% of whom were Black — were sent back to prison on technical violations. Illinois would benefit from:

  • Shortening the period of MSR to 18 months for people released from prison for higher-level offenses (Class X, 1 and 2 felonies).
  • Eliminating this supervision for people released from prison for most lower-level crimes (Class 3 and 4 felonies), unless the Prisoner Review Board specifically determines, based on a validated risk and needs assessment tool, that it is necessary for the person to serve an MSR term.
  • Limiting this supervision to 1 year for individuals who were convicted of Class 3 felonies, and 6 months for those convicted of Class 4 felonies.

Illinois needs to stop using expensive and ineffective surveillance tools that set people up to fail. It is time to give up the false promises of “truth in sentencing” laws, and focus instead on meeting the housing, education, and employment needs of formerly incarcerated people and their communities.