BY: The Exoneration Project

The Story of Illinois C-Numbers

By Attorney Josh Tepfer

On February 1, 1978, Illinois made one of its most significant changes to its criminal justice scheme. As of that date, all sentences imposed upon individuals convicted of criminal offenses were made determinate – that is, individuals were sentenced to a specific number of years or days, and, generally speaking [1], the individual would serve that time period incarcerated.

Prior to 1978, all sentences were indeterminate. Under the indeterminate scheme, you would see sentences of ranges, and unless and until an individual reached the maximum, his release would be at the discretion of the parole board. So, for serious offenses like murder, you would see these crazy ranges (like a sentence of 100-300 years). The range of numbers had very little meaning, however, as after a much shorter period of time (usually in the neighborhood of 10 years), the Prisoner Review Board (PRB) would annually determine whether the individual should be released.

But what of the individuals who remained incarcerated for offenses committed prior to February 1978? Well, because most criminal laws only apply going forwards—and cannot be applied retroactively to past criminal cases—those individuals remained on indeterminate sentences. They would still get annual hearings in front of the PRB to determine whether they should be released from custody.

The individuals incarcerated serving indeterminate sentences in Illinois came to be known as “C-numbers.” (This reflected that there Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) numbers was prefaced with a “C”). In 1978, when the law changed, this group consisted of roughly 16,500 individuals.

Almost forty years later, “C-numbers” still exist in the Illinois prison population. According to the most recent PRB Annual Report available online, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 162 C-numbers still incarcerated in IDOC.  Needless to say, the number was whittled down for a variety of ways. For example, some of those individuals completed their maximum sentences so they were released; many have simply died; and some have been granted parole by the PRB.

As you might imagine, the small group that remains consists of some of the most elderly inmates in the Illinois prison population. Many are sick or wheelchair bound. It is hard to imagine they pose any real risk of re-offending.

At the same time, given that these individuals have mostly [2] been incarcerated for nearing four decades, you might imagine that the crimes for which these individuals are convicted are some of the worst imaginable. They are almost exclusively murders. Some involve murders of law enforcement officers; others involve surrounding facts that are sometimes described as “brutal or heinous” or “indicative of wanton cruelty.”

These C-number cases pose difficult questions. At the forefront is the obvious:

Should individuals who committed heinous offense but pose little-to-no-risk of re-offending be released from prison? Is that fair to victims? Are there situations where the crime is too bad that no amount of rehabilitation suffices to allow release? And if there are such cases, why have these parole hearings at all?

In a series of upcoming posts, the EP blog will explore these questions somewhat unique to C-numbers. We will explore the PRB’s process of adjudicating these parole hearings—a process that may surprise you in any number of ways. You will learn about unique issues faced by C-numbers who claim their innocence, and hopefully a bit more.


[1] The caveat is there were and are other Illinois statutes that allow “good time” credit. The “good time” laws allow the Illinois Department of Corrections discretion to reduce the actual time an individual is in prison. But the actual sentence of years imposed by a judge is determinate.

[2] Again, a caveat: There are some rare exceptions of C-numbers who were charged and convicted of crimes that occurred prior to February 1978, but were not arrested or incarcerated until many years later. That is, the crimes were “cold” for many years, until an individual was prosecuted and convicted years later.