CHICAGO (CN) – More than 4,000 sex offenders in Illinois face effective life sentences despite a court granting them parole because of restrictions on where they can live, seven men claim in a federal class action.
Due to state regulations that severely limit where sex offenders can live, Stanley Meyer has served the past five and a half years of his parole behind bars and is unable to qualify for release, according to a complaint filed Monday in Chicago federal court.
The trouble begins with the courts’ interpretation of the sentencing law, which permits parole terms from three years to life at a court’s discretion.
Rather than setting determinate parole periods within that timeframe, however, state courts routinely sentence sex offenders to indeterminate parole, the complaint states.
When a sex offender serves that time outside prison, he earns credit towards termination of his parole.
But when the offender is not able to leave prison because he cannot legally live in any of his proposed “host sites,” he can never earn termination of his parole, effectively sentencing him to life in prison, according to the lawsuit.
For several of the plaintiffs, the only option for housing would be a halfway house or homeless shelter, none of which accept registered sex offenders in Illinois, they claim. They are unable to earn money to secure other housing because they are in prison.
Several other plaintiffs have family that is willing to take them in, but these proposals have been blocked by the Illinois Department of Corrections for a host of reasons.
Sex offenders cannot live in a house with a computer or smart phone, for example, or in varying distances from schools, daycare centers and public parks, of which there are thousands in Illinois.
Even if the offender passes all these tests, the department can and does deny housing plans for “any reason they see fit,” the complaint states.
“The challenged scheme results in what amounts to a Kafkaesque nightmare whereby these individuals are denied any semblance of proportionality in their prison sentences and due process of law,” the lawsuit says.
Life sentences not handed down by a judge are a civil rights violation, claim the plaintiffs, who were only sentenced for a handful of years for various sex offenses including child pornography and sexual assault.
Further, the right to release for parole is established under state law, they claim.
The plaintiffs – Meyer, Paul Murphy, J.D. Lindemeier, Keenon Smith, Jasen Gustafsen, Alfred Aukema and Kevin Tucek – seek class certification on their claims, which include violations of due process, equal protection and the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
They want to represent about 4,000 Illinois prisoners who have been sentenced to indeterminate parole sentences for sex offenses, plus any who would face this punishment in the future.
U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall is presiding over the case.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and John Baldwin, director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, are the defendants.
The Illinois Department of Corrections said it cannot comment on pending litigation.
Civil rights lawyer Adele Nicholas, who represents the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview Wednesday that she expects the state to contest the claims “vigorously.”
Because the de facto life sentences result from several overlapping laws and jurisdictions, Nicholas said she expects an argument that it’s neither Madigan nor Baldwin’s fault that her clients’ rights are being violated.
As far as damages go for the time the men have spent in prison, Nicholas said this declaratory action will not address that.
“That’s really not our clients’ priority at all,” she said.