SEX OFFENDER PROJECT - Illinois: With nowhere to live, many sex offenders spend parole in prison

Aaron Chambers

If the criminal justice system worked like it was supposed to, sex offenders would have supervision and treatment after leaving prison and returning to an Illinois community.

Instead, sex offenders are departing prison and re-entering society with no supervision and no treatment. They must register with state and local law enforcement authorities but are otherwise free from government oversight.

“They walk out with no strings attached and, in many cases, drop into a black hole,” said Cara Smith, a deputy chief of staff at the Illinois attorney general’s office and chairman of the Illinois Sex Offender Management Board.

As state and local lawmakers allow fewer places for them to live, sex offenders are staying in prison through their parole terms, even after completing criminal sentences. For the sex offenders, parole becomes an extension of the prison sentence. For the rest of Illinois, the value of sex-offender supervision and treatment is neutralized.

“The best way to manage sex offenders is to supervise them in the community,” said Jorge Montes, chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. “And the way this is playing out, very few of them are getting supervised. They go straight into the community because they max out (their parole time) in the (Department of Corrections).”

Roughly 540 sex offenders are serving parole in prison and are poised to depart with no supervision or treatment, according to the Prisoner Review Board. On average, sex offenders serve three to five years of parole.

Law enforcement officials are alarmed by the trend, which grew over the last two years. They say treatment is key to minimizing recidivism.

“I tried to find a place to stay. But they say, ‘There’s no place for you – for sex offenders,’” said Herminio Rodriguez, a Rock River Valley sex offender finishing parole in the Dixon Correctional Center.

In 2001, a Winnebago County judge sentenced Rodriguez to 13 years in prison for aggravated criminal sexual abuse for molesting a family member under the age of 13. The Prisoner Review Board approved parole in May 2006, but the Department of Corrections responded that Rodriguez had not provided “a suitable host site from which he can be supervised electronically.”

Parole agents watch sex offenders when they serve parole. They help ensure the sex offenders register and comply with mandated treatment.

But when sex offenders serve parole behind bars, treatment is optional. And when they leave prison after completing parole, agents do not supervise their transition back to the community – and therefore do not watch to see that they register. If sex offenders don’t register, the state may not know where they are.

The phenomenon, known as cyclical incarceration, works like this: When the sex offender is eligible for parole, the Prisoner Review Board sets terms of parole. After the sex offender submits addresses for possible homes to the Department of Corrections, the DOC says the specified homes are not suitable and tickets the sex offender for violating parole. Though the sex offender never left prison, the DOC issues a warrant for the inmate’s arrest.

The review board then responds that the sex offender did not violate parole and urges the DOC to find a suitable home for the offender. The DOC again tickets the sex offender for violating parole. The cycle continues until the sex offender’s parole term expires.

At that point, the sex offender is no longer the Department of Corrections’ responsibility, and the department lets the sex offender go.

Rodriguez is scheduled to complete parole Aug. 16, 2008. When he and the other sex offenders return to society, chances are they won’t be under state supervision.

“The question is not whether they will come out of prison. The fact is that they will,” said Cara Smith, the prosecutor. “Then the question becomes: What is best for the community given that fact? Is it better to have some guy walk out the door and drop into this black hole that’s growing larger and larger every day? Or is it better for him to walk out the door under the eyes and ears of a trained supervisor, with treatment and registration?”

There is no clear solution in sight. Some observers suggest rolling back restrictions on where sex offenders can live, though that’s an uphill battle with legislators reluctant to take action that may be perceived as soft on crime. Others say the DOC and its parole officers must do more to find homes for sex offenders.

“If you don’t like where this guy wants to live, point him to a place. Show him a place,” said Charles Fasano, director of the prison and jails program at the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog.

The Prisoner Review Board’s frustration with the corrections department also is apparent. In the paper exchange concerning the DOC’s citations against sex offenders for not identifying suitable housing, the board in several cases said the individuals couldn’t be parole violators when they had not even left prison.

The board in some cases refused to consider any more citations. In one instance, it informed the department it was “futile” to continue ticketing a particular sex offender for not identifying a proper home.

Sergio Molina, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, acknowledged that cyclical incarceration is a significant problem. He said the DOC goes out of its way to investigate and identify possible homes for sex offenders who are done with their sentences.

“What we want to do here at the agency is have them on parole for their parole period so that we can supervise them while they’re in the community, make sure that they’re receiving treatment and participating in all of their parole requirements, so that by the time they get off parole hopefully we have set them on the right path,” he said.

Molina added that about 1,200 sex offenders are on parole, in the community, in Illinois.

State and local policy makers limit the places where sex offenders may live. State law says sex offenders must live at least 500 feet from a school, for instance, and that they must stay at least 500 feet from a park where children play.

A 2005 state law, the latest in the series, precludes more than one sex offender from living at the same address. Only state-owned or operated facilities, or transitional homes licensed by the corrections department, are exempt from this one-sex-offender-per-address rule.

The law followed outcry from a Chicago neighborhood where multiple sex offenders were living in a halfway house. But critics say the restriction complicates the task of returning these criminals to society by limiting the availability of halfway houses.

“There are places which will accept former offenders, including former sex offenders, and if you eliminate that restriction you will open up those places once again,” said Verlin Meinz, an assistant deputy defender at the state appellate defender’s office.

The three prongs of parole for sex offenders – supervision, treatment and registration – are designed to work in combination. When there is no supervision, law enforcement officials say compliance with treatment and registration is much less likely.

“If a person is on mandatory supervised release, there are fairly strict conditions of (parole), especially for a sex offender,” Meinz said.

“If the person is just being recycled and never being placed out on (parole), he or she will ultimately hit the streets without supervision of any sort, and that is by far the most dangerous situation. As bad as somebody might think that it may be to have a sex offender out on the street, it’s better that the person be under supervision than under no supervision at all.”

Aaron Chambers is a staff writer for the Rockford Register Star may be reached at 217-782-2959 or achambers@rrstar.com.