SPRINGFIELD — A petition filed with the Illinois Supreme Court by 17 prison reform advocates seeks to end a state policy that has forced more than 1,000 sex offenders to serve their parole in prison because they lack approved housing.
Currently, 1,100 sex offenders are being held in state prisons under a "turnaround" policy used for almost a decade by the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Prison Review Board. The policy bars release of a sex offender until housing deemed suitable by the state has been secured.
In a petition filed by lawyers with the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law and the Uptown People's Law Center, inmate Johnny Cordrey challenges his prison stay beyond his April 12, 2013, scheduled release.
Advocacy groups signing in support of the petition included The John Howard Association, the League of Women Voters of Illinois and the Illinois Public Defender Association.
Advocates argue that the policy unfairly punishes inmates who don't have the resources for a home.
"We stand strongly for the proposition that, in the modern day, the state of being poor, indigent or homeless is never valid cause for imprisonment," advocates said in their petition.
IDOC spokeswoman Stacey Solano said the agency is following the law by holding inmates during their mandatory supervised release, formerly known as parole.
"Public safety is the core mission of this agency. Under the law, sex offenders must have appropriate and approved housing prior to parole. If they are unable to find an approved host site, IDOC will continue to house them until an appropriate site is found or until their discharge date, as IDOC cannot keep an offender past that date," said Solano.
Alan Mills, with The People's Uptown Law Center, said Wednesday that several decisions by state officials have contributed to the problem.
A law that makes it illegal for more than one sex offender to reside in the same facility bars two former inmates from living in the same apartment building, regardless of the size of the complex, said Mills.
The state's pool of transitional housing accommodates only 26 offenders on mandatory supervised release and none of those units is in the Chicago area where the largest number of the state's inmates return.
"Everyone is responsible for this problem and we think the courts should do something to straighten it out," said Mills.
Incarcerating 1,100 people beyond their sentence costs the state about $2.4 million a year, based on IDOC's current per-capita cost of housing an inmate.
A change in the "turnaround" policy would have the added benefit of making more space in an overcrowded network of prisons, said Mills.
In addition to delaying an inmate's return to the community, the practice also means that when the individual leaves prison, they are not under the supervision of a parole agent. There are requirements to register with local police who conduct residency checks, but the more frequent monitoring of a parole officer doesn't happen.
After a tour of Pontiac Correctional Center with a group of lawmakers in February, IDOC Director Tony Godinez said more than 1,000 inmates were eligible for parole "but we can't release them because there's no place for them to go."
The state of Illinois has not yet filed its response to the petition.
According to the Illinois State Police, 180 registered sex offenders reside in McLean County, with nine listed as non-compliant with registration rules and four whose locations were unknown.
McLean County Public Defender Kim Campbell said its very difficult for sex offenders to locate appropriate housing.
"We have no transitional housing here and the shelters won't take sex offenders. Homeless registrants must register where they are staying every seven days. If they don't have a home it's safe to say reporting every seven days and paying fees is difficult," said Campbell.
The consequences of a violation are serious.
"Technical violations of those requirements can land them back in prison for years. Registration (prison) terms of 10 years to life," said Campbell.