Illinois Just Abolished the Death Penalty

What will happen to the inmates on death row?

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois on Wednesday, legislation that will go into effect July 1. The governor also commuted the sentences of the 15 inmates on death row to life in prison without parole. Aside from no longer facing execution, will the inmates’ daily lives change much?

Possibly. Illinois hasn’t yet decided what to do with the 15 men on death row. But one thing that might change is their actual location—most  death-penalty states, including Illinois, hold death-row inmates apart from inmates with lesser sentences. Illinois may decide to transfer the men from the “condemned unit” at  Pontiac Correctional Facility to maximum security cells in the same facility. Also like most death-penalty states, Illinois keeps death-row inmates in solitary confinement for 23 hours of the day, denies them access to prison educational and jobs programs, and limits their interactions with other inmates and visitors. It’s possible that the 15 men will face more lenient rules, particularly with regard to interactions with other inmates and visitors.

New Mexico and New Jersey were the most recent states to abolish capital punishment, in 2009 and 2007, respectively. In New Jersey, the state’s eight death-row inmates’ sentences were reduced to life without the possibility of parole. Based on their disciplinary history and perceived threat to others, the inmates were placed in either the nearby “management control unit”—still maximum security, but less restrictive—or the general population. In both cases, transferred inmates had greater access to classes and jobs, and had more contact with other inmates, than they did on death row.

Getting off death row may have its downsides. Death-row inmates raising a habeas corpus claim in federal court are entitled to representation by government-paid lawyers, something that the government won’t guarantee—and typically won’t provide—for noncapital habeas cases. And whereas on Illinois’ death-row inmates have their own rooms, in maximum security facilities most inmates must share cells.

How do former death-row inmates fare after having their sentences commuted? The Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia, which ruled that all existing state death penalties were unconstitutional and effectively commuted the sentences of all death-row inmates, gave researchers the chance to find out. (The de facto moratorium on the death penalty lasted only until 1976, when the court changed its mind in Gregg v. Georgia.) A study of 558 inmates spared by Furman found that, 15 years later, just under one-third had committed “serious rule violations,” such as violence against other inmates or officers, in prison. About 7 percent had committed three or more serious violations in prison.

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Explainer thanks Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, Sharyn Elman of the Illinois Department of Corrections, Deirdre Fedkenheuer of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, and Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law.