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Current policies funnel large number of sex offenders into one building. That needs to change

The state’s job is to balance the needs and rights of ex-offenders with those of all others.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer speaks outside the Englewood home of convicted sex offender Cayce Williams Monday.
Screenshot from Facebook Live

A single building in Englewood, a neighborhood with plenty of struggles, has been home to not one or two or even three registered sex offenders — but to literally dozens.

That strange and — for most Americans — troubling fact came to light recently when people in the neighborhood became aware of, and objected strongly, to one man in particular who had moved into the building who was both a convicted sex offender and convicted murderer.

Every previously incarcerated person who has done their time, paying the price for their crimes, deserves a chance to re-enter society and build a new life. We firmly believe that. But it has to be done in a way that also respects the legitimate fears and worries of the larger community.

Common sense says it is entirely understandable that the people of Englewood — and, really, the residents of any neighborhood — don’t want to live in or near a building that is home to a bizarrely high concentration of convicted sex offenders or other high-level ex-offenders.

How does that go on in the state, whose job it is to balance the needs and rights of ex-offenders with those of all others?

It should not.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) tells us that his first concern was that there was no process to let the community know what was going on at the apartment building. Nor, to his knowledge, was there any monitoring or security at the building, or any programs there for the paroled ex-offenders. The building is not registered as a halfway house or recovery house, according to the police.

Sawyer has been in constant contact with the Chicago Police Department, the city’s building department and the Illinois Department of Corrections, trying to get answers, and he repeatedly has been told the same thing: As long as convicted sex offenders register with the county in which they live and don’t reside within 500 feet of a school, day care center or public park, there’s no prohibition against a large number of them living in one particular building.

Legally, the government can’t interfere with private property and its ownership, Stephen M. Komie, a criminal justice attorney based in Chicago, told us, except of course when it comes to such things like building code violations that raise health and safety concerns.

Sawyer thinks this is nuts. If the State of Illinois can regulate whether an ex-sex offender lives within 500 feet of a grammar school, we’re hard pressed to see why the state can’t find a way to ensure so many offenders can’t live in one building.

“Most people are saying this is still totally legal, and we are saying how? How could this be legal?” Sawyer said. “You got women and children across the hall, not across the street, from a paroled sex offender who quite honestly needs support.”

Adding to the problem, the names of most sex offenders are included on a public registry, for all to see, and while many of these offenders eventually get off the list — generally depending on the severity of their crimes and at the discretion of a judge — others never get off the list. Some of them may no longer be a risk to anybody, but their ability to move on, find a job and a place to live remains a struggle.

If a paroled offender has developed a solid record of good behavior, their case should be reviewed regularly by somebody — a judge or true panel of experts — who is empowered to remove the offender’s name from the registry and erase the scarlet letter.

But that’s not how things work.

“[The current system] is a sledgehammer which is in the hands of bureaucrats, and not in the hands of the judge who actually hears the case,“ Komie said.

Housing restrictions placed upon ex-offenders, as well as their limited ability to land good jobs, push them to live in areas in the city where rent comes cheap and where there are no schools, parks or daycare centers, which rules out much of the metropolis. This has been the case for some time at the Englewood apartment building, but it took the arrival of a particularly high profile ex-offender to bring the problem to the neighborhood’s attention. To avoid a high concentration of them in one place, they need to be provided with clear housing alternatives.

Why, we have to ask, can the state not ensure ex-offenders who have served their time can find housing throughout the Chicago area? Why do we, as a state, allow the problem to fall disproportionately on poorer communities, usually communities of color? Advocates for those registered as sex offenders say one answer would be to reduce the 500-foot limit to 250 feet so they have more places to live and don’t have to congregate in the same areas.

“We shouldn’t warehouse people in one place,” said Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “We ought to have more resources close to the communities where they live so they can help to get back into society. But you can’t be angry at the Englewood neighbors for protesting.”

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