Rethinking Illinois’ Truth-In-Sentencing Law

Rethinking Illinois’ Truth-In-Sentencing Law

Many are aware of the dire financial state that Illinois currently finds itself in. One of the main causes of this has been years of passing laws without any consideration of the financial burdens of their enactment, and one of the most egregious examples concerns Illinois’ Truth-in-Sentencing law.

Truth-in-Sentencing in Illinois requires that nearly all violent offenders serve 85 to 100 percent of their criminal sentences.  Prior to the current Truth-in-Sentencing law’s 1998 enactment, offenders served, on average, 44 percent of their sentences.  For more than a decade Illinois resisted enacting a Truth-in-Sentencing law when other states rushed to do so.  Instead, Illinois increased sentencing ranges for violent crimes.  The State didn’t pass its Truth-in-Sentencing law until after the federal government monetarily incentivized Truth-in-Sentencing legislation.  Although this legislation was enacted in Illinois over a decade-and-a-half ago, not a single comprehensive cost/benefit analysis has been undertaken to determine what monetary effect enactment has had on the State.

Other states that enacted Truth-in-Sentencing legislation adjusted for it by reducing sentences so the average imposed sentence was about half of what it was before enactment.  That way prisoners ended up serving around the same amount of time in prison and didn’t cost the state additional money.  Illinois, on the other hand, failed to make such an adjustment.  Instead, Illinois judges actually increased the average sentences imposed or continued issuing similar criminal sentences, which resulted in longer terms of incarceration due to the newly mandated Truth-in-Sentencing good conduct time provisions.  With the sentencing ranges having already been increased, Illinois taxpayers have continued to be hit twice as hard: once for the existing sentencing scheme and effectively again due to the Truth-in-Sentencing legislation.

A couple of years ago I compiled a preliminary report concerning the impact of Truth-in-Sentencing legislation using rudimentary calculations and the limited statistics available on the internet or from the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).*1  I found that, even if one considers the meager funds received from the federal government from 1996 to 2004, which altogether totaled less than $125 million, the additional costs incurred by the State for sentences imposed under Truth-in-Sentencing from 2002 to 2004 alone, was over $750 million.  My estimates were extremely conservative.  They were reached using a roughly $25,000 per year per person cost of incarceration figure, which is nearly $10,000 lower than the number cited in some other sources.

Also, that number does not account for the increased expense required to care for prisoners when they become elderly and require additional, expensive medical care.  Writing in an article for the Chicago Reader entitled “Guarding Grandpa,” Jessica Pupovac reported that the IDOC “spends roughly $428 million a year — about a third of its annual budget — keeping elderly inmates behind bars.”  As Ms. Pupovac noted, “[w]hile keeping a younger inmate behind bars costs taxpayers about $17,000 a year, older inmates cost four times as much,” or $68,000 per year.  This is close to the $96,000 figure that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) arrived at as well.

As for the $17,000 figure, or even the nearly $25,000 figure that I used from the IDOC itself, these are ridiculously low estimates.  According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the IDOC does not calculate the full cost to taxpayers when reporting the average costs of incarceration.  They purposefully neglect to account for pension contributions, employee benefits, health care contributions for both employees and retirees, capital costs, and statewide administration costs.  When one takes all of these costs into account, as the Vera Institute of Justice did, it shows that Illinois spends, on average, $38,268 annually to incarcerate each inmate.

So, prior to the Truth-in-Sentencing passage in Illinois, if a criminal defendant received a 50-year sentence for murder at age 18, he or she would have had to serve, on average, 44 percent of that sentence, or 22 years, due to the numerous types of good conduct time awarded then.  Thus, they would have been released at age 40, and their incarceration would have cost the State $841,896 to carry out that sentence.

After the passage of Truth-in-Sentencing though, that same sentence means that the offender must now serve the entire 50 years and won’t be released until they are 68.  Therefore, the first 32 years will cost the State $1,224,576, and the last 18 years, when he or she is elderly will cost the State an additional $1,242,000 (the IDOC considers prisoners elderly at age 50).  So, before Truth-in-Sentencing, a 50-year murder sentence cost taxpayers $841,896, but after Truth-in-Sentencing it cost taxpayers $2,466,576.  (This is in addition to the million dollars or so they may have already spent on trial and appeals.)  Thus, Truth-in-Sentencing nearly tripled the costs to Illinois taxpayers, adding $1,624,680 to the tab for this one sentence.  Each year over 300 criminal defendants in Illinois are sentenced for murder.  Thousands more are sentenced for other violent crimes.

All of these Truth-in-Sentencing sentences are adding up to the State incurring well over a quarter of a billion dollars per year in added liabilities.  Suffice it to say, many more teachers, police officers, and firefighters could serve the community for that same funding.  Every year that Truth-in-Sentencing remains law without action to adjust, reform, or repeal it we add another quarter-billion dollars to the State’s credit card that we’ll all be paying for years to come, many years to come.

Isn’t it time we had a discussion about what constitutes a reasonable amount of money to spend to punish someone?  Isn’t it also about time we consider if there are more effective and cost-efficient ways to spend that money to reduce crime?  Studies have shown that inmates who have served 25 years in prison and are 50 or older upon release have less than a 1.1 percent recidivism rate.  They also consistently show that “murderers,” the so-called most “violent” criminals, have the lowest recidivism rate of any category of offenders.  Keeping elderly people incarcerated well past the point where they cease to pose a threat to society may sate our appetite for revenge and retribution, but it does nothing to keep society safe.  It actually does the opposite by taking away funds that could have been used to employ police officers and teachers, fix dangerous bridges and roads, and rehabilitate the 95 to 97 percent of prisoners who will one day be released from prison back into American society.*2  It is time to inject some “common cents” into our criminal justice legislation.

1-The report can be downloaded at

2-The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has issued several reports stating that between 95 and 97 percent of America’s prisoners will one day be released from custody.