Facts and Policy Reforms for Illinois
Like most states, Illinois’ prison population has exploded in recent decades, quadrupling since 1980 and giving the state the eighth-largest prison population in the country as of 2016.
Despite decreasing by nearly one-fifth since the prison population peaked in 2012, the system is over capacity, and the state’s Department of Corrections projects that there will be 7,000 more people in prison than the system’s designed capacity by 2019, even after reforms that are expected to further shrink the prison population are factored in.
Low-level offenses, including drug possession charges, dominate new prison admissions in Illinois. 28 percent of people who entered Illinois prisons in 2016 were admitted for a Class 4 felony — the state’s least serious felony classification, which includes nonviolent drug possession and theft crimes. Between 1989 and 2014, more than half of the rise in prison admissions was the result of people convicted of Class 4 felonies.
Unsurprisingly, Illinois’ mass incarceration crisis has had an enormous impact on people of color, especially Black people. In 2014, Illinois’ prisons had one of the highest disparities between Black and white people in the country. Although Black people make up just 14 percent of the state’s population, they constituted a staggering 57 percent of its prison population in 2016. Ending mass incarceration is a critical — although insufficient — step towards addressing racial disparities in Illinois’ criminal justice system as well as its broader society.
Women are also being sent to prison in Illinois at alarming rates. Between 1990 and 2016, the number of women in Illinois’ prisons more than doubled, rising from 4 to 6 percent of the overall imprisoned population. The dramatic rise in women’s admissions to prison between 1989 and 2005 was driven almost entirely by drug law violations.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Illinois can dramatically reduce its prison population by implementing just a few sensible reforms:
- Legalizing marijuana and reclassifying simple drug possession offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
- Raising the felony threshold for property crimes to reduce the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.
- Reducing all penalties for felony drug offenses by one class or more.
- Promoting alternatives to incarceration like substance abuse treatment, mental health care, and other programs.
- Eliminating mandatory minimums and ensuring probation is always a sentencing option for people convicted of nonviolent crimes.
- Ending “truth in sentencing” laws that don’t allow people to be paroled until they’ve served long stretches of time in prison, even if they’ve participated in rehabilitative programs.
If Illinois were to follow these and other reforms in this Smart Justice 50-State Blueprint, by 2025 it could have 24,898 fewer people in its prison system, saving over $1.5 billion that could be invested in schools, services, and other resources that would strengthen communities. (Total prison population reduction may be +/- 1 due to rounding.)
For more information, along with detailed breakdowns of Illinois’ prison population and the reforms needed to reduce it, click here.