Prison sentences served, but Illinois sex offenders stay locked up

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Paul Murphy was originally sentenced to three years of probation after his conviction in 2011 on charges of aggravated child pornography.

Murphy is impoverished and homeless. And after he was found violating his parole by sleeping in the doorway of a church, Murphy was ordered to serve his sentence in prison.

Sex offenders mandatory supervised release

Illinois Department of Corrections

Four of the seven Illinois Department of Corrections inmates who brought a lawsuit contending the state’s mandatory supervised release law for sex offenders is unconstitutional. Clockwise from the top left: Paul Murphy, Jason Gustafson, J. D. Lindenmeier, and Keenon Smith.

He finally was approved to be released from custody in March, 2014, into the state’s mandatory supervised release program.

But because he is homeless and cannot find a place to live that satisfies the myriad of restrictions and regulations, Murphy, 61, remains in prison. And unless he somehow finds housing that satisfies the state’s strict limits, Murphy is doomed to spend his life in prison regardless of what his original sentence had been.

Murphy is one of seven inmates who have turned to the federal courts, contending that Illinois is improperly keeping sex offenders in prison even after they have served their full prison sentences — with the possibility they might never be freed.

Their class action lawsuit charges Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Corrections Department Director John Baldwin with improperly keeping sex offenders in prison by imposing conditions for their housing that make it impossible to win release.

“We’re going to fight vigorously to try to change some of the circumstances to which these people are subjected,” said Mark Weinberg, co-counsel for the prisoners.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the state is still readying its response to the lawsuit, and a comment would be premature.

At issue are both the restrictions of the statute as well as the Department of Corrections interpretation. Sex offenders cannot live nearby parks, schools or day care centers. They cannot live in a condominium or apartment or trailer park where another convicted sex offender lives, with the one exception a halfway house. But there are no halfway houses in Illinois that accept sex offenders.

In the case of Murphy, the lawsuit details his plight. He has no money nor family members or friends who can help, and cannot earn money while locked up. He applied for housing at a halfway house in East St. Louis that, the lawsuit said, was the only one in Illinois that accepted sex offenders.

He was told there was a five-year wait at the time he applied; the facility has since closed. And so, the lawsuit contends, “Murphy faces imprisonment in the Illinois Department of Corrections for the rest of his life.”

According to the lawsuit, about 4,000 Illinois prisoners convicted of sex related crimes have been sentenced following the end of their prison terms to serve three-years to life of mandatory supervised release.

Prisoners who receive that indeterminate sentence can only apply to be released from the strict supervision after serving three years outside of prison.

But a growing number of prisoners who have completed their sentences find they cannot get released to begin the three-year clock ticking; as a result, the lawsuit contends, the “vast majority of prisoners” who have completed their prison terms end up denied release, “serving what amounts to life sentences in prison.”

The lawsuit contends the restrictions of the law are exacerbated by the strict interpretations of the Department of Corrections on whether a site is suitable for release under the program. Among the restrictions, the lawsuit cites: The department routinely prohibits sex offenders from serving their mandatory supervised release at any host site where any resident has a computer or smart phone with internet capability.

In the case of J.D. Lindenmeier, 34, who was convicted in 2007 of predatory criminal sexual assault, Lindenmeier completed his prison sentence and was approved for mandatory supervised release in July 18, 2011. Lindenmeier, the lawsuit contends, has supportive family members who cannot pay for his housing, but are willing to take him into their homes. But Department of Corrections rejected one possible site after another, detailed in the lawsuit:

His father’s home was too close to a school or daycare center. His mother’s home was denied because she has a computer and smart phone. His girlfriend’s home was denied because it was too close to a daycare center. His sister’s home was denied because his sister has children and a smartphone. His father’s girlfriend’s house was denied because it was too close to a daycare center. And his mother’s boyfriend’s home was denied because the house contains a computer and is too close to a school.

msr-graphic

Graphic by Sam Hart / Injustice Watch. Data courtesy of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the city of Chicago. Note: Scale of circles on map does not represent the 500-foot distance the law requires between sex offenders’ residences and these institutions.

As a result, the lawsuit contends, Lindenmeier faces imprisonment for the rest of his life.

The lawsuit also details the plight of Keenon Smith, who was 15 when he was tried as an adult in 2012 and convicted of a criminal sexual assault. Smith, who is now 20, completed his prison sentence and was approved for mandatory supervised release on November 4.

Smith’s mother, an elementary school teacher, has proposed at least 12 different places around Chicago to house her son, including her own house. But, according to the lawsuit, some were rejected because they were too close to day care centers or schools or parks. His mother’s own home was rejected by the department because it was “a three-minute drive” from the victim’s residence.

Illinois law prohibits certain offenders from living within 500 feet of their victims; but the victim’s residence is over 5,000 feet away from Smith’s mother.

When Smith’s mother sought an explanation for why her house was too close to the victim, or what distance would be acceptable, “officials would not give Smith’s mother an explanation,” the lawsuit states.

Jason Gustafsen, 32, was convicted of aggravated child pornography in 2013. He served his prison sentence and, with good time credits, was approved for the mandatory supervised release program in October 2014. But his mother’s home was rejected because it was too close to a daycare center, and his aunt’s residence was rejected because she has grandchildren who regularly visit.

Because Gustafsen has no resources to pay for housing, he has no other options, the lawsuit notes. He cannot meet the requirements to live in an approved site, so he remains in prison; and he cannot apply for an end to his mandatory supervised release as long as he remains in prison.

The lawsuit, filed by Weinberg and co-counsel Adele D. Nicholas in the Northern District of Illinois federal court, says the result for Gustafsen and the other prisoners is “what amounts to a Kafkaesque nightmare.”