Illinois Legal and Jail System Overview

Prior to 1964, the legal system in the state of Illinois was extremely complicated. In that year, and amendment to the state constitution was passed, unifying the entire court system. Today, the system is more streamlined and easier to understand.

All cases enter the court system through the circuit clerk’s office in one of the state’s 102 counties. The circuit clerk is the official record keeper for the court and also collects fines, fees, and court costs. Most cases are first heard in one of the state’s 24 Circuit Courts. Each circuit serves between one and twelve counties, depending upon population and other factors, and has a Chief Judge as well as numerous Circuit and Associate Judges. Circuit Judges are elected to nonpartisan 6-year terms, while Associate Judges are appointed for 4-year terms. Some civil cases are heard instead by an Arbitration Panel made up of three attorneys. These panels hear lawsuits of $30,000 or less in Cook County (Chicago) and up to $50,000 in Boone, DuPage, Ford, Henry, Kane, Lake, Madison, McHenry, McLean, Mercer, Rock Island, St. Clair, Whiteside, Will, and Winnebago counties.

Rulings by a circuit court, industrial commission, or administrative agency may be appealed to one of five district Appellate Courts in the state. Each district has numerous appellate judges elected to 10-year terms. The highest court is the state Supreme Court, in which seven justices hear certain cases from appellate or circuit courts. The justices are also elected to 10-year terms. The Supreme Court has the authority to exercise original jurisdiction over cases relating to revenue, mandamus, prohibition, or habeas corpus, in which case it would be the first court to hear an issue.

The Illinois Department of Corrections, established in 1970, is in charge of the state prison system, including juvenile centers and adult and Juvenile parole services, as well as 25 adult correctional centers along with boot camps, work camps, and transition centers. Three of the correctional centers and one transition center serve women. In 2015, the Department employed approximately 11,400 workers, managed almost 47,000 adult prisoners, and supervised 29,500 parolees. In addition to educational programs, inmates in most facilities have access to vocational training through the Department’s Correctional Industries. Products and services include clothing, office and university furniture, food, milk and juice, mattresses and pillow, eyeglasses, and service dog training.

To locate an inmate in an Illinois state facility, use the Inmate Search tool on the Department’s website. You may search by last name, Department of Corrections number, or birthdate. You may also get information by calling (217)558-2200. The website has extensive details on contact information for each facility, visiting regulations, inmate programs, and family services.

In 2011, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty. The 15 inmates on death row at that time had their sentences changes to life in prison by the governor. Prior to this, there had been a moratorium on executions for over a decade.