Unjust Release Policies Keep Sex Offenders Behind Bars

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In Illinois, inmates claim the state’s release policies can unjustly impose life sentences on sex offenders who have already served their time.

By Kate Wheeling


(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Seven convicted sex offenders have filed a lawsuit against the State of Illinois, claiming its Mandatory Supervised Release policies left them unjustly imprisoned after their sentences were completed.

Though the parole policies in Illinois require that released offenders live in state-approved housing, there is little space for sex offenders in transitional housing. The Chicago Tribunereports that “only nine beds are reserved for sex offenders throughout the state — none of them in Cook County, where the largest number of parolees go to live.”

The release policiescan inadvertently impose life sentences on some offenders. Inmates who have been granted determinate Mandatory Supervised Release terms but have no suitable housing options on the outside can thus remain in prison until their parole term is up, at which point they are released without parole supervision. (Of course, those inmates also don’t have access to the support system that parole provides.) Those with indeterminate supervised terms may never be released, even after serving their full sentences.

Similar issues plague the criminal justice systems in many other states. In New York, for example, restrictions on where sex offenders can live—such as the 1,000-foot buffer zone around schools—can keep many offenders behind bars. In Utah, a lack of treatment spots in a required program keeps inmates incarcerated longer.

Most will eventually get out, even if it is well beyond their imposed release date. But releasing inmates to fend for themselves—without the assistance of parole programs—runs counter to evidence that suggests restrictive housing laws do little to prevent sex crimes and that offenders are the least risk to society when they are fully integrated into a community. As I reported previously in Pacific Standard:

A 2008 report from the Iowa Department of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning found that after a new residential restriction law went into effect, the number of sex crimes against children only increased. A 2010 study looked at whether sex offenders living closer to schools were more likely to re-offend compared to offenders who lived farther away; researchers found no significant relationship between recidivism and proximity to schools and daycares.

Releasing offenders without formal housing set up can also increase homelessness; in 2009, for example, strict housing laws led dozens of sex offenders to live beneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami. A program called Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), which helps sex offenders find jobs, housing, and community connections, has been shown to reduce recidivism by up to 80 percent, Alastair Geereported in the March/April 2015 issue of Pacific Standard:

[Robin J. Wilson, the former clinical director at Florida’s civil-commitment facility] likens COSA to re-attachment therapy. Often, he says, offenders “become detached from society, or perhaps were never properly attached in first place,” and as a result don’t care about the consequences of their actions. But surrounding them with people who take an interest in their lives can initiate a shift. The offenders find that they have friends and opportunities, not just freedom, to lose. “They’ve got people who care about them,” Wilson says. “They’re starting to experience some successes, they may have a job for the first time in ages, they may have a decent place to live.”

But COSA programs are just beginning to catch on in the United States, and while there is growing momentum for criminal justice reform to reduce prison populations across the nation, that support rarely involves changing laws for sex offender. “There is not really any political will to change the laws regulating where people deemed sex offenders are allowed to live,” Adele Nicholas, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in Illinois, told the Cook County Record. “In fact, the regulations get stricter and stricter as time goes on and more and more burdensome.”

That could spell bad news for those inmates filing suit in Illinois, and it’s not good news for taxpayers either, who have to foot the bill for their extended prison stays.