Know More: Truth-in-Sentencing

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 truth-in-sentencing?

Before 1998, inmates in Illinois prison could proactively earn time off their court-appointed sentence through good behavior and participation in prison programming. Overall, these credits could reduce a person’s sentence by up to half, or a day off for every day in prison.

This system changed in 1998 with the passage of truth-in-sentencing (TIS) laws. Today, these laws limit the amount of time inmates convicted of certain offenses can earn off their non-life sentences.

Inmates may be broken into five “tiers” based on how TIS laws affect them, as follows:

  • Day-for-day inmates may up to one day off their sentence for each day served (i.e. 50%)
  • 60% TIS inmates must serve a minimum of 60% of their court-appointed sentence.
  • 75% TIS inmates must serve a minimum of 75% of their court-appointed sentence.
  • 85% TIS inmates must serve a minimum of 85% of their court-appointed sentence.
  • 100% TIS inmates must serve their full sentence (100%) and are ineligible for any amount of time off due to good behavior or programming.

Originally, there were only 75%, 85%, and 100% tiers for TIS. The 60% tier was created through a bill passed in 2017 that permits individuals convicted of all offenses in the 75% tier (except gunrunning) to now earn up to 40% time off sentence, creating a new 60% tier.

As of last June, roughly one in three Illinois inmates were serving sentences affected by TIS laws. Figure 1 shows the distribution of these inmates into different tiers.

Figure 2. Individuals serving TIS-impacted sentences by tier

Caption. Data were sourced from IDOC’s public report on prison population as of June 30, 2017.

Most individuals in the 75% tier are serving sentences for drug-related offenses, while the 100% tier is comprised almost exclusively of inmates convicted of first-degree murder. Figure 2 shows the distribution of convicting offenses for individuals the 85% tier, the largest by population.

Figure 2. Convicting offenses of individuals serving 85%-TIS sentences

Caption. Data were sourced from IDOC’s public report on prison population as of June 30, 2017.

Why does it matter?

To some, the idea that inmates are able to earn time off their sentences might seem like a bug, not a feature. After all, why shouldn’t judges have the final say in how long a person serves? It was largely this idea—combined with the sense that justice systems ought to impose stricter penalties on more serious crimes—that led legislators to pass TIS.

But limiting the ability to earn time off sentence runs against the rehabilitative mission of correctional systems, nor is TIS required to preserve the power of judicial discretion.

Most individuals who enter prison will one day return to society. Therefore, restricting the ability to earn time off sentence through positive behavior and programs only teaches these individuals—especially those who enter as children or young adults—that the system believes them to be beyond reform.

Truth-in-sentencing only teaches individuals—especially those who enter as children or young adults—that the system believes them to be beyond reform.

The argument that TIS protects final sentences of judges from “circumvention” by sentence credits is also misguided. While it is true that numerous laws have reduced judicial discretion over the years, these changes—from automatic transfer laws to mandatory firearm enhancements–primarily work to prevent judges from imposing more forgiving sentences, not dispensing harsher ones.

For instance, a first-degree murder conviction carries a sentence of a minimum twenty years to a maximum of sixty years or life (before firearm enhancements). With such a broad range, judges that believed a longer sentence was justified could choose a sentence length toward the higher end of the range. TIS hardly seems necessary to ensure individuals serve longer behind bars.

Want to learn more?

One of the most troubling aspects of TIS is how it interacts with other “tough-on-crime” policies. Consider, for instance, how TIS combines with mandatory firearm enhancements and laws that allow automatic transfer of juveniles to adult court.

Individually, each law punishes individuals that commit violent crimes with firearms. TIS restricts good time, while firearm enhancement increases time served. On top of this, automatic transfer makes even juveniles eligible for these harsher punishments (and don’t forget, Illinois doesn’t have parole).

That means that until a few years ago, a judge would have no choice but to sentence a 17-year-old who convicted of stealing $250 in an armed robbery—during which he or she fires a bullet into the ground—to be sentenced to no less than 26 years, of which at least 22 must be served. Specifically, after being automatically transferred to adult court due to the nature of the crime, the seventeen-year-old defendant would face a minimum of 6 years for armed robbery plus a mandatory 20 years added for the firearm enhancement. The entirety of this 26 years would be subject to TIS.

Recently, the policy has received some reform-minded attention. In 2016, the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform—a bipartisan commission established by Governor Bruce Rauner to develop strategies to reduce the prison population in Illinois—called out TIS as one area in need of reform. You can read more about why the Commission called for a rollback of TIS in their final report (see recommendations #18 and #19).

Unfortunately, neither of these recommendations were realized to any substantial degree.

Linked Sources

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.

  • Jan Farmer
    Posted at 19:20h, 29 October Reply

    Can you please tell me the status of this proposal? Has any bills been passed to allow inmates sentenced at 85% to earn good time credit?

  • Criminal Justice Reform in the Age of Mass Incarceration: An Open Letter to Illinois State Legislators
    Posted at 15:12h, 08 August Reply

    […] truth in sentencing laws in Illinois, one of the many precarious mechanisms that perpetuate mass incarceration as a facet of […]

    • Tami Bicknell
      Posted at 18:01h, 19 September Reply

      So my grandson who is autistic low -I q was involved in armed robbery no fire arm he received 8 years but they told him he would get Day for day credit . Is that true?

  • ISADORE Campbell sr
    Posted at 02:19h, 21 August Reply

    How does someone for murder get the time cut if they have Served10 years in prison already get there time cut in half would like to have Information about any new Reform reform bills

    • Tanishia simmons
      Posted at 12:34h, 04 January Reply

      Is there a bill in place for ppl who has 20 or more yr. sentence and has served over 10 get time cut now ?

      • Alissa Rivera
        Posted at 20:58h, 06 January Reply

        Hi Tanishia, There is not a bill that helps in that situation. Please let us know if you have any other questions.

  • Angela Avant
    Posted at 06:49h, 22 August Reply

    People who are serving 85% is there anything that says good time is included? If you started out with 85% has the TIS law changed to where it was reduced from 85% to 50%? Please respond back.

  • vivian allen
    Posted at 14:01h, 16 October Reply

    I am a wife of husband who sering twenty years under truthin sentence who has been in oshkosh wisconsin that has been there is close to post release

  • Meceeba
    Posted at 03:12h, 17 December Reply

    If my child hood bf went to prison bk in 2007 and serving time til 2035 for murder is he 85 or 100 plz reply

    • Alissa Rivera
      Posted at 02:40h, 19 December Reply

      It would be 100 percent. Please reach out to us if you have any other questions.

  • RaDasha Raimey
    Posted at 02:49h, 21 February Reply

    Hello, I am new to the site. I want to everyone to know that there is a TIS effort being spear headed through a why reform group page that everyone needs to check out. It is is called Why Reform Illinois. You can find it on Facebook. The restored justice team would be great advocates to help support this effort.

  • Arlene Morales
    Posted at 01:16h, 28 February Reply

    If my boyfriend has 20 years at 100% plus 3 years of MSR after isn’t that technically 23 years? And if not stated correctly in his sentencing transcript could it be possibly to get him released sooner?

    • Alissa Rivera
      Posted at 15:29h, 10 March Reply

      Arlene, The three years of MSR would be served at home. But, people serving MSR are still technically in the custody of the state. I don’t know about the transcript. If you could email me at arivera@restorejustice.org with the specifics, I could try and get an answer.

  • Mary O Villarreal
    Posted at 19:18h, 18 April Reply

    My son is currently incarcerated since January 2019, he served time in County prior to being convicted to 4 yrs for residential burglery, no violence no one was home no wepons and the value was less than 300.00 he had past history of the same but completed a drug court program last time. He has 8 mos left to serve would i be able to contact someone to review for qualifying for an early release i know that law applies to crimes prior to 1998 and he’s under the TIS law he has to do 50% of his time but i did read that some IDOC inmates would be released if it was a non violent crime and close to completing their sentence if this is true can i get a contact to talk to?

  • mrs vivianallen
    Posted at 16:39h, 29 May Reply

    ok my husband. is serving twenty for murder and has four years left. has been reachout many government correction resource they refuse to honer that he is 63 with diabetic and high blood pressure.

    Posted at 12:52h, 19 June Reply

    The fight to restore true Justice is extremely complicated in a society that places financial agendas over individual rights. We at BLACK LIVES MATTER INCARCERATED join us in the fight to restore Justice and stop the cycle of mass Incarceration!

  • mrs vivian allen
    Posted at 18:48h, 03 July Reply

    governnment needs have open mind that prison and jail is not answer god is answer if they would give hurt to god he can solve it. and need to pray .

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    Posted at 17:28h, 16 July Reply

    […] without parole (LWOP), three strikes law, mandatory minimums, various sentence enhancements, and a Truth-In-Sentencing (TIS) law that by itself doubled the amount of time that people had to serve in […]

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    Posted at 01:28h, 13 August Reply

    […] without parole (LWOP), three strikes law, mandatory minimums, various sentence enhancements, and a Truth-In-Sentencing (TIS) law that by itself doubled the amount of time that people had to serve in […]

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