Parole Office Causes a Stir in Northwest Indiana | WBEZ
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Parole Office Causes a Stir in Northwest Indiana

Nearly a million men and women nationwide are on parole from prison. Illinois keeps track of 35,000 parolees. In neighboring Indiana, it's 12,000. One parole office in the Northwest Indiana town of Merrillville is getting extra scrutiny these days. Residents have learned that sex offenders, some of them with violent backgrounds, are checking in at an office located in a busy strip mall.

Every day, here in this Merrillville strip mall at 78th Place and Broadway, hundreds of convicted felons, including sex offenders and pedophiles arrive to meet with their parole officers. The office is nestled among small businesses like a dental office and a Thai restaurant. Because it's poorly marked, it's easy to miss it if you're not looking for it.

BROWN: I'm concerned about the location of it. Secondly, I'm concerned about the notification. Who if anyone had the right to notify us and why we were not, as residents of Merrillville, why we were not notified?

Merrillville resident Donna Brown organizes the town's community crime watch program. The Indiana Department of Corrections moved its Gary District Parole office here 15 months ago with little fanfare.

Brown says neither she nor any of her local crime watch contacts got word.

BROWN: It's a big concern. It's uncomfortable. It is. It's an uncomfortable feeling to know this is what we have.

There's no direct evidence to suggest crime increases in a community when a parole or probation office opens there. That's according to the American Probation and Parole Association, based in Lexington, Kentucky.

But a local Indiana Department of Corrections official, who prefers not be named, believes residents should have been informed of the office's opening.

The official cites the case of David Flores, a two-time convicted sex offender who was checking in at the Merrillville parole office.

He was recently arrested for the murders of two young women last month in the neighboring town of Griffith.

Prior to his arrest, Flores had violated parole conditions by staying out past his curfew.

Merrillville resident Richard Hardaway says when he learned this news, he was shocked.

HARDAWAY: If this thing was public knowledge, if this thing was like headline blasted, that every Thursday is "Sex Offender Thursday," the entire community would be up in arms and I guarantee you at the next council meeting that placed would be packed with concerned citizens wondering, 'What we're going to do about it?'

Hardaway sits on the Merrillville Town Council. He says said the parole office didn't mention a word to the town that it was relocating into a business district until they had already moved in July 2008.

He says the location is inappropriate and there have been problems with parolees urinating a nearby alleyway. Because the office is operated by the state of Indiana, Hardaway says there was little the town could do to stop it. But he doesn't believe the office belongs in the town.

HARDAWAY: What you're doing is you're bringing a totally different element into our community. One day they pack up and move out of Gary and next thing you know they're in our backyard. Not only now are you putting the adult public at risk but now you're putting our children at risk also.For somebody to just shove something down our throat unbeknown to us I think that's the wrong thing to do.

The Gary District Parole Office is now about a 100-yards away from the Merrillville police department.

But the chief there, Joseph Petruch says he wasn't notified the office was moving in until after it already happened. Petruch says the parole office then asked him for an officer to help with security and provide transportation for parolees back to jail. Petruch told them he didn't have enough money or the manpower to do it.

PETRUCH: I think it was mishandled from the start. I can't believe they actually went through with it and rented a location there in a business complex for a parole office. It's unethical. I mean, why would you do that?

The Indiana Department of Corrections was not legally obligated to notify the town of Merrillville when it decided to leave its office in Gary and move 10 miles south into the town.

GARRISON: Parole districts have to be somewhere.

Douglas Garrison is the spokesman for the Indiana Department of Corrections.

GARRISON: These people, they're parolees are out in the community, they are working, they are going to school, they are visiting businesses. This is just another place that they go to that is not essentially a public place.

Garrison says he knows of no problems at the office since it opened 15 months ago.

GARRISON: We try to place them in the least offensive place but that doesn't mean they are going to into a place that everyone is happy about. But again, we would not select a neighborhood. We would not select certain areas that would be inconsistent with that. But I think the best we can say is putting it in an area that we're in now isn't inconsistent with public safety.

But Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association says he thinks Garrison's office should have notified the community. That's what his organization advises.

WICKLUND: If you pull a surprise on people, then you get that kind of visceral reaction. Where if you sit down and help them understand why you're there and the benefits of you being there toward public safety, usually communities are more apt to be OK with it.

Wicklund says some states have so-called “exclusion zones” which can stop an office serving sex offenders from opening near daycare centers, schools or playgrounds. But there are also special exemptions for government-operated entities.

For now, town residents like Donna Brown plan to be more watchful of community surroundings. She expects upcoming neighborhood watch meetings to be well attended.

BROWN: The residents of my area will have notification of what we have with this new office. They will know. My residents will know.

Brown isn't the only one keeping a closer eye.

In Indianapolis this month, one neighborhood is raising concerns with the county over a probation office moving in a new strip mall. That office, however, will not include violent or sex offenders reporting as in the case of the parole office in Merrillville.

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