Chicago police easing registration for sex offenders

June 23, 2014

(WBEZ/Robert Wildeboer)
17 men were waiting in line last week though the department says it’s adding overtime for officers in the criminal registration so the department doesn’t turn away so many offenders who are required by law to register.

Illinois legislators love to pass laws to punish sex offenders. But those laws always increase restrictions. No legislator wants to decrease restrictions on sex offenders, because that would not look good on a mailer by an opponent in the next election.

The result is that Illinois has an increasingly complex matrix of laws restricting sex offenders. Some of those laws may actually make it harder for police to keep track of people convicted of sex crimes. The complex laws have resulted in a confusing mess at the Chicago police headquarters where offenders trying to register have been turned away because police just can’t keep up. That’s got some in the criminal justice system rethinking procedures and the laws themselves. 

For the past few months WBEZ has been reporting on problems at Chicago Police Department headquarters, where police records show the department turned men away 600 times in the first three months of the year. Our previous stories can be heard here and here and here.

Those same records show offenders were turned away another 300 times because they didn’t have ID or the hundred dollar fee they have to pay every year.

John Escalante is chief of detectives for Chicago police and he oversees the criminal registration office, which is responsible for registering sex offenders. I asked him if he was surprised by the number of men turned away.

He hesitates and speaks slowly when he answers, “Somewhat, but I’d have to look at them a little bit more in more detail to be honest with you. It does seem somewhat high, but again if we went through it case by case there might logical and legitimate explanations for it.”

CPD making registration easier for sex offenders

Nonetheless, Escalante says his office is trying to make improvements. He unfolds a poster and puts it on the desk in the press office at police headquarters where I interviewed him a couple weeks ago. 

“A larger form of this, a couple of these are being, produced right now by our graphic arts and reproduction section. This, by the end of the week, I would be willing to bet a paycheck, this will be posted. They’re being laminated today,” said Escalante.

I should have taken the bet because the poster wasn’t up, though when I stopped by last Friday a sheet of paper with the information was hanging on the glass door.

The poster lists (or will list) some additional forms of ID the police will now accept--to make it easier for men to register. Offenders have only three days to register after being released from prison, and it can be nearly impossible to get a driver’s license in that time, especially if you’re poor or released on a Friday.  Until now Chicago police turned away men by the hundreds if they didn’t have an ID.

“We made it less restrictive,” said Escalante. “We’ve added documents that weren’t there before that we’ll now accept. So now we’ll take a bank statement, cancelled check, credit report, medical claims, official mail.” Escalante continues listing off documents they’ll take. It means it will be easier for offenders to register, which means police will actually know where they are. That is, after all, the point of the law. But making things easier for sex offenders can be a tough sell even if it makes good sense.

Escalante says he’s also been giving the okay for overtime so fewer offenders are turned away.  He says the department plans to expand the registration office with a waiting room for 30 people, something they don’t have now,  which left men standing outside in the cold for hours and hours this winter. On one day when I was there reporting in February a man in line was taken away in an ambulance because he couldn’t feel his feet.

“We’ll actually be able to bring people inside, heated in the winter and air conditioned in the summer and out of the elements,” said Escalante.

CPD hasn’t pushed for changes in the law

But here’s something the department has not done. Escalante says they haven’t approached legislators with any suggestions to streamline the state’s complicated and sometimes counterproductive sex offender laws. Escalante’s employees probably know those laws better than almost anyone in the state, which means they know what’s working for law enforcement, and what’s not working.

“On a regular basis they’ll come up to me and make suggestions about how internally we can improve operations downstairs. As far as state statute, that’s going to be the legislators,” said Escalante.

Taking ‘a beat’ on passing more sex offender laws

“Yes. If the police came to us and said we need fixes in the law absolutely we should act,” said Illinois State Rep. Mike Zalewski.

Zalewski says laws often have unintended consequences and people often come to legislators asking for tweaks and changes. And Zalewski has carried issues to the General Assembly for the Chicago police before. He sponsored the bill last year seeking mandatory minimum sentences for people caught illegally carrying a gun.

But things get tricky with sex offenders because no legislator wants to be seen as lessening  restrictions and everybody votes to increase restrictions.

“There are literally a dozen, my guess is, sex offender bills every year. They’re frankly very easy to pass. This session we took a beat on those types of offenses before really adding to them,” said Zalewski.

Just to clarify I asked him if they’d put the brakes on sex offender legislation this year and this is where you can see the politics come into play. Zalewski is very cautious in speaking about this politically toxic topic.

“Well, we, 'put the brakes on' is probably not the phrase I would use,” said Zalewski. I think we decided to study them more carefully.”

Zalewski is quick to make absolutely clear that he supports sex offender laws and that he’s voted for them in the past. However he says there’s already a matrix of sex offender laws and he says the legislature should not just be adding laws without being thoughtful about their applicability.

I asked him about one of the things I’ve noticed that seems counterproductive. Sex offenders have to pay $100 a year when they register, and in the first three months of this year Chicago police turned away people more than 160 times because they didn’t have the money. It’s like we’re saying to sex offenders, well, if you can’t pay a hundred dollars, then we don’t want to know where you are.

Zalewski says that’s the kind of thing a new sentencing reform committee in the legislature is going to be looking at this summer and into fall.

“There’s a real political element of how a member justifies, quote unquote, being soft on sex offenders so you just don’t, you can’t, you have a hard time doing that if you’re running for office every two years, so it’s something that the General Assembly has to reconcile,” said Zalewski.

A call to the ideals of American justice

“Legislators need to look at this, law enforcement administrators need to look at this and our judges need to be conscious of the fact that not everybody that appears before you with that (failure to register) charge should have been charged with that offense,” said Cook County Judge William Hooks when we spoke after a recent luncheon in downtown Chicago. 

To be clear, Hooks says he’s not speaking on behalf of the court in any way, he’s just sharing his opinions.

Hooks says judges in the Cook County courts know that Chicago police have been turning people away when they try to register, whether it’s for lack of money, or a state ID, or just because police say they’re too busy.

Hooks says it’s important to get registration right because if offenders get arrested, they’re likely going to be held in the costly Cook County jail until trial.

“Many of the judges will look at that, oh, failure to register, I’m sure not going to let you back out. And so they will wait until they get their day in court and unfortunately as they wait their day in court, it becomes kind of a duress decision that they have to make because if a judge does not give them reasonable bond, they’re going to be sitting in jail until they feel weak enough to plead guilty and go away, and then the whole cycle starts again,” said Hooks.

Hooks reflected on what’s known as the Gideon case, a Supreme Court case in which an indigent man won the right for all people charged with crimes to be represented by attorneys even if they can’t afford those attorneys.

“We as a society can not judge ourselves as just with the most quote favorable or attractive of defendants. Our system of justice depends on fairness, across the board fairness, for the most unpopular defendants and the most unpopular cases, because otherwise we’re not being tested properly. Anybody can handle a matter where somebody is well-healed and comes to the bar of justice for justice. But the true test of a judge or our system in general is how do you handle the least of these. I mean the Gideons of the world are the people that force us to do the right thing, and God bless them,” said Judge Hooks.

Hooks says it’s defendants considered the most despicable, like sex offenders, that challenge the system the most, and that’s where the system has to work the hardest.