Editor's note: This is the third part of a continuing series of stories The Pantagraph is publishing on challenges facing people after their release from prison, including issues in housing and employment, and re-entry efforts at the state and federal levels.
BLOOMINGTON — At the end of June, Brian Liska will mark the 20th anniversary of two life-changing milestones: the year he was convicted at 21 of sexually abusing a teenage girl, and two decades without an arrest for another sex offense.
Liska spent 60 days in jail and served two years' probation for aggravated criminal sexual abuse in 1997. His identity also was included on a statewide sex offender registry for 10 years. Removal from the registry made it easier for Liska to start over in the community.
But in November 2011, Liska's attendance at his son's Boy Scout meeting at a District 87 school landed him back in the criminal justice system and onto the state registry — this time for life.
"It was my understanding that since school was not in session at the time that I could be there," said Liska.
The mistake brought a charge of violation of sex offender registration rules and another two years' probation. The registration requirement "felt like a slap in the face over something positive I was trying to do with my son," said Liska.
He and his wife, Synamin, live in an apartment on the city's east side and have been able to make ends meet since he started a job unloading trucks for a local retailer after a five-month job search.
Families struggle, too, with sex offender rules, said Liska's wife.
"I knew about his past, but it's never once bothered me. He helped me in ways no one else could after my father's death," she said.
Brian Liska has completed several programs, including Jobs Partnership, and is a mentor for a domestic violence class at Collaborative Solutions.
He is one of 800,000 registered sex offenders currently residing in the U.S. and one of 213 living in McLean County for offenses ranging from child molestation to predatory criminal sexual assault. Bloomington is home to 145 offenders; Normal 23, with another 40 living in rural areas. The whereabouts of five are unknown, according to the recent sex offender records posted on the state website. In 2016, three offenders in Normal and 13 in Bloomington registered as homeless.
Illinois is among a growing number of states looking at changing laws governing the sex offender registry and strict limitations on where offenders can live, work and be present in the community.
McLean County State's Attorney Jason Chambers is a member of the Illinois Sex Offenders and Offender Registration Task Force set up in 2016 to review potential changes.
The impact of sex offender rules on a person's efforts to successfully reintegrate into the community after a conviction are part of task force discussions, said Chambers, who serves on a 30-member panel of stakeholders who work with offenders at all levels of the criminal justice system.
The recidivism rate for sex offenders and their risk to public safety have been key points of the talks, said Chambers.
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"Right now, the registration statute is very black and white and possibly needs more evaluation," he said.
A tiered system that reflects the level of offense and the person's risk to re-offend could replace the current alphabetical listing for those required to register for either 10 years or life, according to records of an April 19 task force meeting. The registry also contains offenders convicted of murder if victims were under a certain age, regardless of whether the crime was sexually motivated.
Other changes under review are a reprieve for longer-term registrants who have been living offense-free for at least five years and the search for precise numbers on how many offenders commit another sex crime.
"Inaccurate information isn't helping," said Chambers, noting that a new conviction for a crime with the potential for violence, such as home invasion or unlawful restraint, should be weighed heavily when an offender's risk is evaluated.
Inaccurate statistics that surfaced 30 years ago labeling a vast majority of sex offenders as likely to recidivate have been repeated in legal arguments to justify strict registration rules, said Emily Horowitz, researcher and author of "Protecting Our Kids? How Sex Offender Laws Are Failing Us."
In research cited on her Sex Offender Research Information Center website, Horowitz points to a 2003 Department of Justice study of 9,691 sex offenders released in 1994 that indicates that 5.3 percent were arrested for a new sex crime within three years and 3.5 percent were convicted of the offense.
A more recent study of sex offenders released in Connecticut in 2012 showed similar low results for arrests and convictions on new sex crimes, according to Horowtiz, who is a professor of sociology and criminal justice at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The use of evidence-based practices to create a system that protects the public without unnecessarily adding to what have been described as draconian registration guidelines could assist lawmakers and others with their efforts, said Chambers.
"We've been using evidence-based practices in the criminal justice system reforms, but I'm not sure we've ever applied them to sex offender registration," said Chambers.
Like many other communities, McLean County has a wide range of sex offenders on its registry. Offenders defined as "monsters" by prosecutors who secured lifetime prison terms for multiple sexual assaults of young children are listed alongside young adults who completed probation after they became sexually involved with teenage girlfriends.
Both offenders are labeled as "sexual predators," a term the state task force is examining for its broad use.
"Overuse of the term can reduce public safety because it removes the ability to accurately differentiate between high-risk and low-risk individuals and it can produce significant collateral consequences for low-risk individuals," the task force noted in its April discussion.
Liska said he is "grateful that somebody is taking the time to listen" at the state level to concerns over registry issues. "Not everyone needs to be categorized as a big bad wolf," he said.
Recommendations from the task force are due Jan. 1, 2018.