NY court: State must help sex offenders find housing once sentence complete

The state cannot leave it up to prisoners convicted of sex crimes to find suitable housing before their release or remain in custody, a New York appellate court rules. At issue are laws in states across that U.S. that leave many convicted of sex crimes locked up after their prison sentences are complete because they cannot find housing because of restrictions on where they can live upon release.

Miguel Gonzalez of New York City was supposed to be released from prison in September, 2014 after serving his rape sentence.

Gonzalez, 34, won credits for his conduct in prison which could have moved his release date up to May. But when his conditional release date came, Gonzalez was kept locked up because he could not find a residence that met the requirements of New York’s strict restrictions on where sex offenders can live. And when his full sentence came up in September and Gonzalez still had not found a residence, he was transferred to a facility that was approved for sex offenders: The Woodbourne Correctional Facility, another prison.

Gonzalez went through a series of administrative complaints over his confinement, with no success, and then turned to the New York courts. While his complaint was pending, Gonzalez was released in February, 2015, to one of the four Manhattan homeless shelters that accepts convicted sex offenders. Following his release, the trial court dismissed his complaint as moot.

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But last week, an appellate court in New York reversed that decision, and ruled that prison officials had an affirmative duty to help sex offenders find housing outside of prison.

The correction department’s “passive approach of leaving the primary obligation to locate housing to an individual confined in a medium security prison facility 100 miles from his family and community, without access to information or communication resources beyond that afforded to other prison inmates, falls far short of the spirit and purpose” of the duty on prison officials, the New York Supreme Court Appellate decision opinion, authored by Justice Elizabeth A. Garry.

The ruling comes as states around the country deal with the realities of the need for adequate housing for sex offenders after they have served their sentences. At issue are a variety of laws passed that prohibit sex offenders from living near parks, schools, churches and places where children may congregate, leaving convicted sex offenders struggling to find anywhere they can legally live.

A group of Illinois prisoners have a suit pending in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, contending the Department of Corrections has improperly refused to release them when they were approved eligible for supervised release, instead rejected as unsuitable several residences to which the prisoners hope to return.

In the Wisconsin communities of Kenosha and Pleasant Prairie, lawsuits have challenged restrictive ordinances passed that sought to restrict where convicted sex offenders may live.  Pleasant Prairie passed an amended ordinance after the lawsuit was filed last year.

Attorney Adele Nicholas, co-counsel for the lawsuits filed in Illinois and Wisconsin, said in an interview that despite differences in the types of cases, Gonzalez’s victory may lead judges in other states to reconsider the problems facing sex offenders after their sentence is expired.

“What (the New York appellate court case) shows is that this problem is pervasive because nationwide laws on residency restrictions are evermore punitive and evermore restrictive, making it almost impossible to find housing,” Nicholas said.

The issue, said attorney Jill K. Sanders, who represented Gonzalez, is “all about making our communities safer.”

Indeed, the laws are intended to protect people, especially children, from the risk that a convicted sex offender will resume his criminal conduct upon release. But as the New York appellate opinion notes, it is “less likely” that a convicted sex offenders will not re-offend if they are denied appropriate housing and employment.

Justice Garry wrote that the court was deciding the case, even though Gonzalez had been released, because the issue was likely to recur. The department, she wrote, failed Gonzalez by not helping him find a suitable place to live.

The court wrote that the record showed that officials had left it to Gonzalez, locked “within the walls of a medium security prison, without access to the internet, without the ability to leave the facility to visit libraries, housing offices or potential residences, and with strictly limited access to telephone and correspondence privileges – to identify potential residences.” The state’s role, the opinion states, was merely to investigate the residences found by inmates to ensure they complied with the restrictions written into New York’s law.

That, the court concluded, was not enough.

Sanders said the court’s strong ruling that the state has a duty to assist individuals in finding suitable housing could lead to a positive change. “We are hopeful that because of this decision,” she said, the state corrections department “will provide more meaningful assistance with housing.”