House Bill 1500, passed by the Illinois state legislature in February 1978, created a new class of criminal offense known as a Class X felony. The principal underlying goals of the legislation were to beef up punishments for violent criminals and address flagrant inconsistencies in sentencing for comparable crimes. A Class X felony, under the bill, is a violent crime, such as rape, armed robbery, treason, and production or sale of narcotics.
Under the statute, judges will sentence Class X felony offenders to a specified number of years of imprisonment, based on the nature of the crime. The criminals will serve the full term, with no chance for parole, except for calculated time off for good behavior.
The Class X bill also significantly changed prison sentences for repeat offenders. Sentences for felons who have been convicted of the same Class X felony twice are doubled. The statute also doubles sentences for especially egregious or heinous crimes, with willful cruelty. Habitual felons, with three or more Class X felony convictions, receive compulsory life sentences with no chance for parole. Penalties for Class X felonies range from six to 30 years.
Concerns over equal protection require that courts treat defendants who have committed similar crimes under similar circumstances almost the same way. The Class X law spelled out the mitigating and aggravating factors that judges must consider when determining an appropriate sentence. Furthermore, those factors must be specified in writing in order to justify the harshness or leniency of a sentence. Such written justifications document due process in accordance with the 14th Amendment, in which the reasons for a sentence are stipulated clearly so that a person of average intelligence can understand and agree.
The mandatory life sentence of the Class X law may encounter some fierce constitutional analysis. Federal courts have ruled some mandatory sentences unconstitutional. Alternative penalties must be available for third-time offenders where there are extenuating circumstances to the crime. In addition, Article I, section 11 of the Illinois Constitution requires that penalties must balance the rehabilitative and correctional goals of prison. A mandatory life sentence, while it may suit the crime, may not take into account the criminal’s capacity for rehabilitation, although one could legitimately argue that the commission of three violent felonies shows a poor prognosis for rehabilitation.
Another potential constitutional point of challenge may be the prohibitions in the Eighth and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution against cruel and unusual punishments. The Supreme Court has held that a punishment is cruel and unusual if it is grossly out of proportion to the crime and out of bounds with what civilized society considers to be acceptable. A punishment that intentionally and punitively inflicts suffering is also prohibited. Most legal experts agree that the Class X sentencing conforms to these requirements.