Recent Trends in Illinois Women’s Prison Population

  • Name
    Amanda Ward ·
  • Name
    David Olson ·
  • Name
    and Jannah Abu-Khalil ·

Between 2018 and 2021, Loyola University’s Center for Criminal Justice took part in the Women’s Justice Task Force of Illinois. Convened by the Women’s Justice Institute, the task force looked to the Center for Criminal Justice to examine statewide trends in the number of women incarcerated in Illinois prisons and the potential impact of targeted policy and practice interventions on that number. You can read the outcome of those analyses in the Task Force’s final report, Redefining the Narrative.  

One interesting finding from the report was that (after decades of steady increases), the number of women in prison appeared to be declining. The number of women incarcerated in prison decreased by 13% between state fiscal years (SFY) 2015 and 2019, due largely to a decrease in the number of women admitted to prison (down 21%). This downward trajectory only increased in SFY 2020 (the final year included in our original analyses), as arrests declined and circuit court processes slowed in response to COVID-19. Indeed, the number of women in prison on June 30, 2020 (1,708) was the lowest since the early nineties.  

Recently, the Women’s Justice Institute reached out to the Center for Criminal Justice with some interesting follow-up questions: How have the number and characteristics of women incarcerated in Illinois shifted since the publication of Redefining the Narrative and the onset of the pandemic? Has the female prison population “bounced back” since then? 

Here’s what we found:  

The number of women in prison is declining. 

The women’s prison population has indeed “bounced back” since the record lows seen in 2020 and 2021, but remains on an overall, downward trajectory when compared to the period prior to 2020.

The number of women incarcerated in an Illinois state prison has increased since 2021, as criminal justice processes (arrests, filings, sentencing) resumed after the reductions resulting from COVID-19. However, the overall downward trend in Illinois’ women’s prison population continues. At the end of SFY 2023, 1,508 women were serving time in an IDOC facility, 43% lower than at the end of SFY 2015.    

The decline in the women’s prison population is a result of less crime, more use of probation, and shorter lengths of stay.  

Generally, the number of women in prison at the end of the state fiscal year is going to reflect the number of women admitted to prison and how long they stayed in prison (i.e., Length of Stay or LOS).   

Between 2015 and 2023, the total number of women admitted to prison, either as a result of being sentenced to prison (court admissions) or because they violated the terms of Mandatory Supervised Release (MSR or Parole) declined 44%. 

In the past decade, there has been a general decline in arrests, case filings, and the number of women on MSR (parole), all of which would naturally result in an overall reduction in the number of women admitted to prison.   

However, we are also seeing a shift in how prosecutors and judges are using prison. Among those who are convicted of a “probationable” felony—that is, a felony for which imprisonment is not mandatory—the probability of being sent to prison has diminished. Statewide, the percentage of women convicted of a felony who were sentenced to prison dropped from 26% in 2010 to 15% in 2022.  Importantly, there was no change to Illinois law that explains this decreased use of prison. Rather, it appears to be an overall shift in how prosecutors and judges exercise their discretion. This decline in the likelihood of receiving imprisonment following a conviction translates to roughly 350 fewer women sentenced to prison per year specifically because of this change in sentencing practices.  

Additionally, the time women spent in prison decreased for almost all felony classes (except murder) between 2015 and 2023. The figure below demonstrates the average length of stay in the Illinois Department of Corrections, which does not include time credited for pretrial incarceration, for women exiting prison. Less time spent in prison, particularly for felony classes that have shorter-term sentences (Class 1, Class 2, Class 3 and Class 4 felonies) will result in a smaller prison population.  

Since 2015, a larger portion of incarcerated women are serving time for more serious, violent offenses. 

As the use of prison for probationable offenses decreases, we see a corresponding increase in the proportion of women who are serving time in prison for more serious level felonies and violent offenses. At the end of SFY 2023, 26% of women in prison were sentenced with Class 3 or Class 4 Felonies (the least serious felonies), compared to 32% of women in SFY 2015.  On the other hand, a larger share of those in prison were for the most serious felony offenses (Murder and Class X felonies: in SFY 2015 these offenses accounted for 28% of the women in prison. By 2023 they accounted for 41% of the women in prison. 

Similarly, since 2015 there has been an upward trend in the proportion of incarcerated women who are serving time for violent offenses. In 2023, 55% of women in IDOC facilities were serving time for a violent offense, either as a new court admission or because they violated the terms of their MSR and were serving time on the original sentence.

Overall, these trends demonstrate that, despite recent increases in the number of women in prison as “things get back to normal” in criminal justice processing following COVID-19, the women’s prison population is declining when compared to the pre-2020 levels.

They also suggest some areas of focus for policy makers and advocates who would like to see the use of prison be reserved for the most serious crimes and highest risk individuals. Not all counties across Illinois have seen a reduced reliance on prison. In many counties, the majority of women who are sent to prison were convicted of the least serious felonies and non-violent offenses. These patterns may reflect a lack of community-based alternatives or needed behavioral health services, particularly in Illinois’ smaller, more rural communities. At the other end of the spectrum, Illinois’ women in prison are increasingly serving sentences for more serious felony classes and violent crimes, many of which carry extremely long prison sentences. If the goal of reformers is to continue to reduce the number of women in prison, attention to the length of stay for individuals convicted of these more serious offenses will need to be the focus in coming years.