Know More: De facto life sentences

The criminal justice system in Illinois can often feel like a jigsaw puzzle, full of interlocking laws, policies, and eccentricities that can be overwhelming even to experienced advocates. Over the next few months, Restore Justice will publish a series of “Know More” posts. Each post will provide a straightforward overview of a different Illinois criminal justice concept as it relates to our mission.

What is a de facto life sentence?

De facto life sentences (also known as “virtual” life sentences) refer to non-life sentences that are so long that the sentenced person will likely die or live out a significant majority of their natural lives before they are released.

While no strict legal definition for de facto life exists, the United States Sentencing Commission defines the cutoff for de facto life at 470 months, just shy of 40 years.

For the purposes of who we serve at Restore Justice, we define de facto life as 40 years.

Why does it matter?

In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. While the interpretation was narrow, the ruling has allowed roughly eighty people in Illinois to be re-sentenced and in many cases released.

Today, hundreds more in Illinois continue to serve non-life sentences of 40, 60, or over 100 years for offenses committed as young people. Despite the fact that many of these individuals will likely to die in prison—functionally serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole—they are ineligible for re-sentencing from Miller, which was predicated on the idea that children are “constitutionally different from adults,” with “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”

State courts across the country are tangling with the question of how to define de facto life sentences. Just recently, the California Supreme Court decided juveniles could not be sentenced to 50 years or longer for certain offense , writing that these sentences would be “functionally equivalent” to life without parole (like Illinois, California has mostly abolished parole, meaning most sentences in California are “without parole”).

At core, Restore Justice believes in second chances. For that reason, and wherever possible, we advocate for legislative changes that would bring relief to all individuals serving extreme sentences, up to and including those serving life without parole.

Want to learn more?

Other reform and advocacy organizations use different definitions for de facto life. The Sentencing Project, for instance, defines virtual life at fifty years: for national statistics, check out their broad look at extreme sentences.

Linked Sources

Cohen, K., Schmitt, G., & Reedt, L. (2015) “Life Sentences in the Federal System.” Washington, DC. United States Sentencing Commission. Retrieved from https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-projects-and-surveys/miscellaneous/20150226_Life_Sentences.pdf.

Dolan, M. (2018, February 26). California’s top court strikes down 50-year sentences for juveniles. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com.

Miller v. Alabama, 132 U.S. 2455 (2012).

Nellis, A. (2017). “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences.”  Washington, DC. The Sentencing Project. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/still-life-americas-increasing-use-life-long-term-sentences/

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