Sex offenders sue, saying registry laws keep them from church, living with family

A 77-year-old man says he’s been forced out of his home, had to move out of state and can’t visit his daughter’s family because of a crime he committed long ago.

The man, identified as John Doe No. 2 in a recent court filing, is challenging a law that he views as unfair but that many people think is a must for people like him — child sex offenders.

Since the man was convicted in 2000 in Cook County, he has been required to register as a sex offender and is not allowed to go near parks and schools.

“I think it’s a crock,” said the man, who spoke on condition that he not be named. “Whatever happened to the fact that once you served your time, you could go back into society? Sex offenders aren’t allowed to go back into society at all.”

The former resident of Arlington Heights and Romeoville is one of five registered child sex offenders who have filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago saying Illinois’ sex offender laws are unconstitutional because they are too vague.

Separate from the legal challenge, the Illinois legislature also has taken up the issue of whether laws governing those convicted of sex crimes involving children need to be reconsidered. A bill passed by lawmakers and now awaiting the governor’s consideration would form a task force to assess whether sex offenders should be classified by the potential risk they pose. Critics say the laws are too restrictive, confusing or burdensome, not just for sex offenders but for police who must enforce them.

Yet the public’s fear of such offenders means any attempt to loosen restrictions on them is likely to face resistance.

“My sympathies are limited,” said Sean Black, spokesman for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “I’m much more concerned about the victim than the offender. That doesn’t mean there can’t be tweaks to try to make it better and more rehabilitative.”

“We feel sex offenders need to be monitored to make sure the public is safe,” he said. “Many sex offenders have more than one victim.”

A study by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2004 found that 5 percent of sex offenders were rearrested for another sex crime within three years.

Illinois lawmakers created the state’s child sex offender registry in 1986, originally only for repeat offenders. Later, the registry went online and over the years has been amended multiple times to include those convicted of sex crimes that don’t involve children and offenses like child pornography and public indecency at a school or park.

Offenders also are required to register annually and report to police every 90 days. They have to provide an address, current photo, list of distinguishing physical traits, license plate information, phone numbers for themselves and their employers, identifiers for computers they use and a list of any internet site where they have posted a message. Offenders must provide an initial DNA sample to authorities and disclose if they live with anyone under 18 who is an offspring.

Homeless people must report to police every week.

The suit doesn’t challenge those requirements but rather where offenders can go. The number of banned places has increased over the years, as such measures tend to be politically popular. Currently, offenders may not loiter or reside within 500 feet of a school, public park, playground or day care center.

But the current law does not differentiate among sex offenders who may pose more danger than others. To address that, the pending bill would have a task force of experts, lawyers, police and victims recommend how to classify sex offenders based on individual risk to public safety and identify high-risk offenders.

Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Democrat and a former Cook County prosecutor, said he supports sex offender laws but that some may be burdensome for police to enforce and streamlining them might actually go further in protecting the public.

Still, Zalewski said he was concerned about trying to predict who will reoffend.

“The one time that person reoffends,” he warned, “the hue and cry from the public will be, ‘Lawmakers, you failed us.’ ”

The past offenders involved in the lawsuit say the restrictions on them go too far.

Four men and one woman, all anonymous, filed the suit in May against Attorney General Lisa Madigan and State Police Director Leo Schmitz, claiming state laws are unconstitutionally vague. Madigan’s office, which represents the state in criminal appeals, declined to comment. A representative of the state police, which runs the statewide registry, could not be reached.

The 77-year-old plaintiff said in a phone interview that he was convicted of solicitation of a child in a police sting. But the Illinois State Police registry, and the registry in his current home of Omaha, Neb., list a more serious offense, aggravated criminal sexual assault. He maintains the online registry is incorrect but the reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.

In this case, the man was fined, completed therapy and served four years on probation, and he admits that he is a child sex offender under the law.

He said he used to live in a duplex with his daughter, granddaughter and 7-year-old great-granddaughter in Romeoville until police sent him a letter stating that he could no longer stay there because it was too close to a play lot in the complex. Forced to leave, he said he now splits time between a shelter and his son’s home. He said he isn’t sure if he can even visit his daughter without being found in violation of the ban against “loitering” near a park.

Romeoville police Chief Mark Turvey wrote in an email to the Tribune: “We would never tell anyone they cannot visit a resident in town. They may be prohibited from living at a particular location due to the proximity to (a park or school), but they are not prohibited from visiting.”

Romeoville, with a population of almost 40,000, has 22 sex offenders on the state registry, all of whom are currently considered compliant with the law. Police are required to make house calls to verify registration at least once a year, but Romeoville Detective Sgt. Christine Masterson, who is trained to enforce the law, doesn’t consider it especially difficult to administer or interpret. She said most sex offenders stay in compliance, though the department arrested about five people last year for violations like failing to register a new address.

Chicago, on the other hand, has 3,685 offenders listed, of which 775, or 21 percent, are considered non-compliant.

The law also prohibits sex offenders from participating in any holiday event involving children and from being present at any facility that provides services exclusively for those under 18.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who are all anonymous, contend that those restrictions are so broad that they keep them from participating in fundamental activities of their choice.

Among them is a 48-year-old Urbana woman who pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse of a minor in 2014 and served four years of probation.

She attends a Baptist church in Champaign, according to the suit, but isn’t sure whether she is violating the prohibition against being near schools because the church offers children’s Bible study and other programs.

Likewise, a 50-year-old man from Morton Grove wants to be able to visit his grandchildren and take them to restaurants with playgrounds, like McDonald’s, and to events like July Fourth festivities, but he said he can’t.

Adele Nicholas, an attorney for those who are suing, said that none has reoffended and that the restrictions keep them from living normal lives and getting back into the mainstream. The suit asks the court to find several state laws unconstitutional and halt their enforcement. Nicholas hopes that would prompt lawmakers to rewrite the laws and evaluate offenders individually.

“Because offenders are marginalized, they’re not able to find stable employment and housing,” she said. “They’re often forced to move away from their families and systems of support, which increases the risk of reoffending. It’s just a misguided approach to protecting children from sex offenders.”

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