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In Illinois today, there are 2,625 people taken into custody before the age of 26 serving sentences of life and de facto life in state prisons. De facto life is defined by the United States Sentencing Commission as termed sentences longer than 40 years. These people represent about 1 percent (29,111) of Illinois’s prison population.
Each case and person is unique, and few statements can describe all individuals serving extreme sentences. That said, knowing at a broad level who bears the burden of the state’s most extreme sentences helps us understand the issues, craft more nuanced policies, and build common ground for dialogue between communities, advocates, and legislators.
Here’s what we know about this group of individuals.
Overwhelmingly, the people in Illinois serving life and de facto life for offenses that occurred before the age of 26 are young Black men from Cook and its neighboring counties. Figure 1 shows the distribution of sentences by race, compared with Illinois demographics.
Eighty-three of Illinois’s 102 counties have sentenced at least one person to life or de facto life (among the people still serving these sentences) for an offense that occurred before the person’s 26th birthday. Sixty-five percent (1,706) of the people currently serving life or de facto life for crimes that occurred before they turned 26 are from Cook County.
About 96 percent of youth life and de facto life sentences are for homicide-related offenses.
Sixty-eight percent (1,790) of the people serving life or de facto life for crimes that occurred in their youth are Black.
Almost half (49%) of all people sentenced to life and de facto in Illinois entered custody before the age of 26.
About 1 in 5 (28%) entered custody before the age of 21, some as young as 13 years old, much too young to drive a car or vote.
More than half (53%) of the people currently serving youth life or de facto life received their sentences before 2004.
Figure 2 shows the distribution of ages when individuals were taken into custody.
Figure 3 shows the distribution of sentence year for the current population of serving individuals.
This data is from IDOC’s public report on prison population as of December 31, 2020.
This data is from IDOC’s public report on prison population as of December 31, 2020. The data does not include sentenced individuals left IDOC custody as of December 31, 2020.
This data is from IDOC’s report on its prison population as of December 31, 2020. For the sentence length, we assumed the earliest possible release due to good time and truth-in-sentencing modifications (e.g. an individual with a 90-year, day-for-day sentence was reported as having a sentence length of 45 years).
Because they enter at a younger age, people serving youth life or de facto life sentences tend to serve longer sentences than older adults sentenced for the same offenses, despite the diminished culpability of youthfulness.
Restore Justice sourced this data from Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) records dated December 30, 2020.
To determine the target subset of individuals, Restore Justice identified individuals who were (1) taken into IDOC custody before age 26 and (2) sentenced to life OR a term of 40 years or more after accounting for possible earned time and truth-in-sentencing modifications. For example, an individual who entered IDOC custody at age 22 to serve a 60-year sentence under a day-for-day program would NOT be included in our analysis, while an individual sentenced at age 24 to serve 45 years under a 100 percent truth-in-sentencing program would.
The analysis reflects Illinois’s state prison population as of December 30, 2020. Individuals who meet the criteria for extreme youth sentencing may have left or entered IDOC custody since the time of analysis. Individuals who meet the criteria may have also passed away since the time of the analysis.
Data was analyzed using R.