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Hundreds of Southern Illinoisans are required to register as sex offenders. But are we any safer?

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ sex offender registry, which now includes more than 32,000 people — most of them men, though some women, as well — has rapidly expanded since its first iteration in 1986.

Then, it included four qualifying crimes. Today, there are more than 30 crimes that trigger mandatory registration, including some repeat misdemeanor offenses.

In recent years, policy makers and advocates, both for offenders as well as victims, have been raising questions as to whether the registry, and the ever-increasing rules around it, really makes the public safer, or causes more societal harm than it does good.

In 2018, a bipartisan task force recommended Illinois take a far more nuanced approach to its registry, providing for risk assessments that allow law enforcement to focus limited resources on monitoring and more robust treatment options for people who are at high risk of re-offending.

The task force also recommended that those who pose less risk automatically fall off the registry after a set period of time. In fact, one of the key findings of the group is that the registry has not lived up to its mission.

“While public opinion surveys show that the public favors a freely available sex offender registry … research has not established that registries have any effect on the sexual crime rate,” the task force wrote in its final report.

The General Assembly has not taken any significant action on the recommendations in the two years since. 

In the coming months, The Lee Enterprises Midwest reporting team, which includes The Southern Illinoisan, will examine the government systems established to protect children from abuse, specifically sexual abuse, including complex registry laws and residency restrictions.

Registry rules run amok?

About one out of every 200 adult men who live in Illinois is required to register.

There are hundreds of people on the registry across Southern Illinois.

Some registrants are homeless. Others languish in Illinois prisons long after their eligible parole date because they can’t find a place to live that meets stringent residency restrictions.

Most people with a sex offense conviction on their record are prohibited from living within 500 feet of a school, day care, park or other child-based facilities.

Rural areas of the state, including many Southern Illinois counties, are home to a disproportionate share of people on the registry, though a large percentage of the people who live here were convicted in other counties, an analysis of the registry shows.

That may be, in part, because residency restrictions severely limit housing options in non-rural areas.

People with a sex offense conviction on their records must register either for 10 years or a lifetime. Most people on the list have been labeled “sexual predators” and must register annually for their natural life.

With the exception of some juvenile cases, and other than death, there is no mechanism by which the majority of registrants can have their names removed.

On the whole, criminal justice policy has moved in the opposite direction: toward shorter sentences, an attempt to mitigate factors that contribute to crime, and a heavier emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation. Meanwhile, Illinois’ registry has grown by more than 20% in the past decade.

“There’s really a national conversation, and it’s happening in Illinois as well, that’s really about rethinking the fundamental nature of criminal justice systems, and what we want them to be and to do,” said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. But when it comes to people with sex offense convictions, “this is an area where we haven’t been able to move the needle.”

Local law enforcement agencies dedicate countless hours to upkeep of the database, including making sure people on the registry live where they say they do. But treatment providers, especially in rural areas, are far and few between. Only a small percentage of people serving time for sex-related convictions receive specialized treatment while in prison.

More importantly, advocates for reform say, the state has done little to remove barriers that allow people with sex convictions to reenter society as they leave prison, even while taking great strides to do so for people who have committed other categories of offenses.

Housing stability is one of the biggest barriers to a successful reentry, as well as longer-term success for people who have served time for any offense. People with past sex offenses often face the greatest challenges to securing stable housing, said Laurie Jo Reynolds, an organizer with the Chicago 400 Alliance, an alliance of victim, criminal justice and housing advocates working to address homelessness and housing instability resulting from state residency restrictions. 

The extensive restrictions on where people can live effectively banish people from legally living within many cities and towns, Reynolds said. Further, there are no transitional housing facilities for people with sex convictions licensed by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

People with a past sex conviction are not allowed to rent government-subsidized housing. A person on parole for a sex-related crime cannot rent a place at an apartment complex that houses any other individual on the registry.

"Housing is the foundation for a stable, productive life, but Illinois laws force people into homelessness even when they have homes," Reynolds said. "It also causes 1,400 people to be detained in prison after their release dates. It’s difficult to re-enter society if you can’t leave prison and if we banish you from all housing."

Further, it does nothing to advance public safety, and may have the opposite effect, she added. 

Criminal justice research has consistently held that stable housing, work and social standing are among the most important factors to reducing crime — all of which registry and residency laws make challenging to attain.

People with past sex offense convictions face high rates of homelessness.

In Chicago, one in five people on the registry are homeless. That means they have to report their whereabouts to law enforcement on a weekly, rather than annual, basis. Of those who are homeless in Chicago, 80% are Black men who live on the city’s west and south sides, according to the Chicago 400 Alliance. In Illinois, a Black man is more than three times as likely to have to register than a white man.

Origins of a complex law

When Terry Parke, a former state representative from Schaumburg, the chief sponsor of the Habitual Child Sex Offender Registration Act, discussed his 1986 bill, the origins of Illinois’ registry, he described it as “one of the most important laws the legislature would consider that year.”

“We are having an epidemic in Illinois … of sex crimes against our children.” Parke said in pleading his case for the bill.

Another lawmaker, Rep. Robert Regan, a Republican from the south suburbs of Chicago, implored his colleagues to remember “that pedophiles are compulsive and repetitive.”

The law required habitual child sex offenders to register with police within 30 days of their release from prison and remain registered for 10 years.

This first registry was only for law enforcement use, and included people who were released from state custody and had been convicted of criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual abuse or aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

In the decade that followed, numerous states passed similar laws. Many of them were prompted by Congress’ 1994 passage of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. The law was named for an 11-year-old boy from Minnesota kidnapped in 1989 by a stranger. It required states to establish registration systems for law enforcement to quickly identify people convicted of offenses against children and sex-related crimes.

The goal was to help law enforcement with investigations before technological advances made it possible for them to easily and quickly view previous convictions to vet suspects.

Two years later, Congress moved to make state registries available to the public with the passage of Megan’s Law. The legislation was inspired by a 7-year-old girl from New Jersey who was raped and murdered by a man who had previously been convicted of sexually assaulting two other young girls.

When state registries first came into being, there was a sense on the part of many that the intended target was “the worst of the worst” — repeat offenders who repeatedly preyed on children, said Yohnka, of the ACLU.

“Instead, it’s burgeoned into this thing that no longer reflects that,” he said. “I’m not certain it is in any way fulfilling the goal, the original intent of the list themselves.”

Abusers most often known to victims

Decades of secrecy, especially around child sexual abuse, limiting disclosure and prosecution, coupled with tough-on-crime political rhetoric, has fueled numerous public misconceptions on this issue.

For instance, though the term was referenced during the 1986 debate for the state's initial registry, most people on the registry today do not have pedophilic disorder, which is a psychosexual disorder characterized by sexual attraction to prepubescent children, according to experts.

In 2010, during floor debate in the Illinois House concerning a bill to restrict people with past sex convictions from parks and forest preserves, then-Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a Republican from Elmhurst, argued that “these people … recidivate at 40 or 50 or 60 percent of the time.”

Indeed, a May 2019 Department of Justice study found that half of released sex offenders had a subsequent arrest that led to a conviction. However, the study found these convictions were far more likely to be for a non-sex-related offense, such as a property crime, drug offense or parole violation. Further, the recidivism rate of people with sex offense convictions over a nine-year period, from 2005 to 2014, was lower than that of people with other types of convictions.

A 2015 report from the Justice Department found that the rate at which people with past sex convictions commit a repeat sex offense range from 1% to 22%, depending on their risk level.

“Although sex offenders are often viewed as a homogenous group by the public,” the report noted, in reality they have committed an array of illegal acts, ranging from noncontact offenses such as exhibitionism to violent sexual assaults. 

According to the Justice Department report, the recidivism rate for high-risk offenders is 22% from the time of release. For those who have lived 10 years in the community offense free, the rate decreases to 4.2%. The recidivism rates of low-risk offenders are consistently low, at 1% to 5%, the study found.

Among the thousands of people on Illinois’ registry, the details of their cases and crimes vary greatly, even though most in Illinois share the label “sexual predator.” No risk assessment information is included. 

A complicating factor in determining recidivism rates is that most incidences of sexual abuse are not reported. Children, especially, are known to wait years to disclose what happened to them.

That’s because they are far more likely to be abused by someone they know, and oftentimes love and trust, than by a person unknown to them —regardless of whether they are on a registry.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S., children and teens who are sexually abused know the perpetrator in more than 90% of cases. In just over a third of cases, perpetrators are family members; they are acquaintances to the child or family in about 60% of cases.

Child victim advocates support changes

Even some of the most strident defenders of child victims say it is time for a reexamination of the registry.

Dr. Kathy Swafford speaks at the Child Abuse Prevention kick-off.

Dr. Kathy Swafford speaks at a Child Abuse Prevention event. 

Dr. Kathy Swafford, executive director of the Children’s Medical and Mental Health Resource Network, a division of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, works with child sex abuse victims across downstate Illinois. She said a registry does serve a purpose for victims, families and advocates, but believes it should be more targeted and specific.

Swafford said a risk-assessment component that distinguishes those who are repeat offenders or otherwise deemed high risk from low-risk offenders is an approach that makes sense.

“If you’re on the lower level, the lower tier — whatever we decide those crimes might be — then as far as affecting your employment or being held against you forever, I don’t know that that’s correct,” she said.

Victor Vieth, with the Zero Abuse Project, an organization that aims to end sexual abuse against children, said the issue of registries is a complex topic that deserves additional debate and more study. He opposes any efforts to quickly relax standards during the pandemic, saying children, many of whom are out of school, are at increased risk right now. But, Vieth said there is room to improve registries to make them more effective.

“Once we come out on the other side of the pandemic we can revisit the broader issues of registration,” he said. “Probably some people need to be on the registry for life, and we need to monitor them closely. There are probably others who are not as much of a danger who we could relax the standards on.”

Southern Illinois child advocates worry about unreported abuse during the pandemic

Some Illinois prosecutors and law enforcement officers have a different take on it.

Having tried cases involving horrific crimes against children, Williamson County State’s Attorney Brandon Zanotti said he doesn’t think lifetime registry is too long for those crimes that mandate it. As a caveat, he added that the law already includes the ability for people whose mandated life registration stems from a crime they committed as a juvenile to petition the court for review of their status.

Zanotti said some investigations start because a member of the public reports suspicious or illegal behavior by a registrant. For instance, Zanotti said his office received a complaint a few weeks ago that a person on the registry had signed up to serve as an election judge, which the law doesn’t allow. The individual was notified he could not serve prior to election day and a replacement was found.

New laws added annually

During floor debate in 1986, some lawmakers pushed back on creation of what, in hindsight, was a relatively conservative approach to a state registry intended to aid law enforcement in investigations.

Then-Rep. Larry Hicks, a Mount Vernon Democrat, said it was inappropriate to tell those who served their time for a conviction that “we’re going to then register them and try to brand them for years to come.”

But the bill easily earned the approval of the chamber and then sailed through the Senate without dissent, according to a legal examination of the registry in a 2010 article published by the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy.

While the atmosphere under the dome in Springfield is often divisive and partisan, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have largely stood united in support of increasingly harsh punishments for people who commit sex crimes. By the same token, they’ve shied away from taking up any significant reforms to the registry.

Since the law’s passage, lawmakers have passed in excess of 100 new rules and restrictions targeting people with past sex convictions.

In fact, each year seems to usher in a host of new laws — sometimes one by one.

Seven years after passage of the initial law, lawmakers extended the registration requirement to those whose victims on a first offense were under 18. In 1996, they took it a step further, requiring everyone convicted of a sex offense, regardless of victim age, to register. It applied retroactively to anyone convicted of a sex offense in the previous decade.

That same year, the General Assembly moved to make the registry’s names, addresses and offenses available to the public, rather than only law enforcement — the easily searchable Illinois State Police Sex Offender website launched three years later.

In 1998, passage of a new law prohibited those with sex offense convictions from loitering within 1,000 feet of a school or playground. And in 2000, lawmakers passed a law prohibiting those with child sex convictions from living or being within 500 feet of schools, playgrounds, child care institutions, daycares and other facilities that primarily serve children.

Though many states have since passed residency restrictions, it was one of the most restrictive laws of its kind at the time.

Ride Shotgun with Lake County sheriff’s Sgt. Bryan Kersey as he checks to ensure convicted Northwest Indiana sex offenders are complying with state sex-offender registry laws. This special episode of “Riding Shotgun with NWI Cops” was filmed recently in conjunction with a Midwest reporting project titled, “Out of the Shadows: Spotlight on Sex Crimes.” The special report will span multiple newspapers throughout Lee Enterprises’ Midwest news agencies and will be taking a deep look at sex crimes, the offenders, their victims and the effectiveness of state laws and justice systems in dealing with the issue. “Riding Shotgun with NWI Cops” is an ongoing video series produced by The Times of Northwest Indiana. Video filmed by Kale Wilk and produced by Scotia White.

Only three other states preceded Illinois in adopting similar rules.

Additional registry-related rules and restrictions followed passage of the federal 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Child Safety Act, championed by a father whose 6-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered in 1981. The most significant portion of the law sought to establish uniform and comprehensive sex offender registration and notification requirements across the states.

For instance, it sought to increase the amount of information collected on registries and expand crimes that require registration. As well, it sought to make states require registration of juveniles who are at least 14 years old when adjudicated delinquent for certain sexual offenses, and make registries retroactive by requiring all people convicted of sex offenses to register regardless of date of conviction.

Tough-on-crime politics

While many different events prompted the layers of legislation, people who work inside the Capitol building and track criminal justice legislation observe that even-numbered election years seem to bring about the most changes to the registry and restrictions.

“Because there is little, if any, organized opposition to these and other sex offender bills, there has been little political debate about the long-term effects of Illinois’ regulatory scheme,” read the 2010 Northwestern Journal of Law report, “Putting the Brakes on the Preventative State: Challenging Residency Restrictions on Child Sex Offenders in Illinois under the Ex Post Facto Clause.”

Michelle Olson was a young Northwestern law school student when she wrote the article. Ten years later, she works for a private law firm in Chicago, and hasn’t kept up with the policy discussions on the topic. She stressed that she’s not an expert on the current best practices regarding registries.

But she remembers her motivation to write about it at the time.

Prior to beginning law school in 2007, she spent four years working for both the Illinois House Democrats, a government job, and the Illinois Democratic Party.

During campaign season, she would go on leave from her government work and party leaders would assign her to work the campaigns of lawmakers facing tough reelections. Year after year in her government job, she witnessed lawmakers introducing new legislation concerning people who commit sex offenses, and pass the bills with little substantive debate. Later, those votes would turn up in campaign material.

“You probably see if you look back then, and even now, there are a lot of mail pieces from both parties about being tough on crime and cracking down on sex offenders,” she said. “It was sort of a standard talking point for a long time. But I came out of that process just wondering, is this really effective? Is this really solving the problem? Are we actually damaging some people’s lives beyond repair for a talking point?”

Lawmakers have long hesitated to vote or speak against any legislation that could be perceived as going easy on those who commit crimes against children. During debate, they preface questions by first stating their disapproval of those who commit sex crimes. 

"None of us ... would do anything that's going to even give the appearance of coddling a sex offender," former Rep. Ken Dunkin, a Chicago Democrat, said before asking why lawmakers were not advocating a more comprehensive approach to managing people with sex offense convictions. 

He was speaking during the 2010 floor debate about disallowing people with past sex offense convictions in parks or forest preserves, whether or not children are present. 

Former Rep. John Fritchey, also a Chicago Democrat, took it a step further and admonished his colleagues for bringing up this and similar bills, one after another. “So many of these people are going to vote for this bill for political cover and to avoid a hit, and to avoid a mail piece, not because it affects a policy …,” he said.

— Kevin Barlow of The (Bloomington) Pantagraph contributed.


On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​


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