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Know More: Felony class and mandatory minimums

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 are felony classes and mandatory minimums?

In Illinois, felonies are sorted into six classes based on severity. A felony’s class determines the range of sentences judges are legally permitted to dispense for an offense, outside a few offense-specific carveouts and enhancements.

This range includes the mandatory minimum, which is the shortest prison term a judge is legally able to sentence for a given crime.

The six classes used in Illinois, their current allowable sentencing range, and a few representative offenses are provided in Table 1.

Table 1. Sentencing range and example offenses for six felony classes in IL

Class Base sentencing range Example offenses
First-degree murder (occasionally class “M”) 20 yrs. – Life First-degree murder
Class X 6 – 30 yrs. Predatory criminal sexual assault, armed robbery, home invasion, child sex trafficking, attempted first degree murder
Class 1 4 – 15 yrs. Aggravated robbery, second-degree murder, vehicular hijacking, production of child pornography
Class 2 3 – 7 yrs. Burglary, robbery, arson, witness harassment, kidnapping
Class 3 2 – 5 yrs. Aggravated battery, unlawful use of weapon, forgery, theft between $300 and $1,000
Class 4 1 – 3 yrs. Domestic battery, obstruction of justice, theft <$300

Misdemeanors are offenses less serious than a class 4 felony and fall into three classes (A, B, and C). Misdemeanors cannot be punished with prison time (though up to a year of jail time is permitted).

A few other factors to keep in mind: first, there isn’t always a one-to-one relation between criminal actions and charging offense: felonies are not necessarily written to be mutually exclusive, and often prosecutors have discretion to charge a person with offenses that differ in their sentencing range.

Second, other laws may require sentencing above the mandatory minimum (or put another way, raise the minimum). Firearm sentence enhancements, for instance, require judges to add between 15 and 25 years to the sentences of certain offenses. This means that adults who are convicted of first-degree murder with a firearm will receive a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 years, not 20. Other felonies have their own distinct sentencing rules: for instance, homicide with two or more victims must be punished by life without parole.

Many other states also organize felonies into classes in order to establish roughly standardized sentence ranges.

Why does it matter?

In Illinois, felony class determines the mandatory minimum a person must serve for a given offense. These mandatory minimums reduce judicial discretion and transfer power to prosecutors to influence sentencing outcomes through plea bargains (for more on that topic, check out any of these recent pieces on how plea bargains degrade justice).

In fact, between 2011 and 2017, over 80 percent of the roughly three thousand cases of armed robbery in Cook County resulted in plea bargains.

One way sentencing policies change in Illinois is through changes to the felony class system. This can happen either by changing an offense’s classification or by changing the range of possible sentences for an entire class.

Both of these changes were recommended in the final 2015 report of the Governor’s Commission as a way to reduce the state crisis of prison overcrowding. The Commission recommended a reduction in the minimum sentence for felonies on the order of 1 to 5 years for all felonies above class 4 (recommendation #13), as well as reductions in classification for a large number of controlled substance (recc. #15) and stolen motor vehicle offenses (recc. #17).

Notably, both these and the Commission’s other recommendations looked solely at reducing the minimum possible sentence, meaning judges retained their ability to dispense stricter sentences as they saw fit.

Neither proposal, however, was enacted into law in any substantive form.

Want to learn more?

This 2014 factsheet on criminal penalties—compiled by the Illinois General Assembly’s Legislative Research Unit—is a useful to have on hand.

A lot has been written about mandatory minimums. In their excellent brief, Families Against Mandatory Minimums clearly outlines the case against mandatory minimums and how they weaken our justice systems. Elsewhere, Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project takes a close look at mandatory minimums and their impacts in the context of federal sentencing. To better understand the different types of arguments made for and against mandatory minimums, check out the summaries of oral and written testimony from a public 2010 hearing before the United States Sentencing Commission.

Linked Sources

Illinois General Assembly Legislative Research Unit. (2014). Penalties for Crimes in Illinois. Retrieved from http://www.ilga.gov/.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums. FAMM primer on mandatory sentences. Retrieved from https://www.prisonpolicy.org.

Heaton, R. et al. (2016, December). Final report of the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. Chicago, IL. Retrieved from http://www.icjia.state.il.us.

Mauer, M. (2010). Viewpoint: the impact of mandatory minimum penalties in federal sentencing. Judicature, 94(1). Retrieved from http://sentencingproject.org.

Lynch, T. (2016, January 20). Americans are bargaining away their innocence. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com.

McArdle, M. (2017, September 26). Plea bargains are a travesty: there’s another way. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com.

United States Sentencing Commission. (2010, May 27). Summaries of the oral and written remarks of the witnesses United States Sentencing Commission public hearing. Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www.ussc.gov.

Yoffe, E. (2017, September). Innocence is irrelevant. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com.

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4 Comments
  • Maria Cantrell
    Posted at 01:13h, 10 April Reply

    My boyfriend was sent to Menard prison in Chester Illinois, since the virus is going on they haven’t had soap to take showers or have any hand sanitizer. My boyfriend is in their for a dui and is suicidal he needs to get out early cause he did not hurt anyone or kill anyone he needs help, his lawyer told him he was going to rehab but he got sent to prison instead which he does not belong there.

  • Linda Mcgee
    Posted at 03:22h, 27 April Reply

    Anthony case is still pending of cook county Illinois was a felony of murder never murder no one was a reckless homicide and he was in the back the state attorney dismissed the first degree murder at the end of the trail , Anthony as been in Jail for 29 yrs straight in prison and extra 14 years for the murder the state dismissed,

  • Sheri walls
    Posted at 03:32h, 27 April Reply

    Anthony has did 29 year for murder he did do he didn’t murder or kill , Anthony was in the back sit of a reckless homicide and the driver wouldn’t stop , Anthony did the Robbery time , but not 14 extra years for a murder he never did , Anyythony lost his his trust born may 11 2016 , his Grandma Dorthy past April 30 2014 , Now his mother Linda has severe dementia and all he need and waiting on them to open the gate and let this man come home to his mother so he can always be there in case the worst thorn for him , this need to stop haven’t the this virus taught that life is Not promise to no one free the pole that not suppose to be in jail for wrongly accused I’m pray for all the inmate that should be ther this long

  • Shamica Rogers
    Posted at 11:50h, 28 May Reply

    My husband is in prison on a petty marijuana charge. He’s not a murderer he has severe asthma and like a year left on his sentence and he’s being told he wasn’t eligible for good time until he’s under a year but another guy with the same time and sentence but he’s a different race was given six months of good time before the 12 months. This is unacceptable. My husband is doesn’t get in trouble, he has a job and deserves to be home and not put in danger by being in an incubator for a virus as serious as this.

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