J.D. Lindenmeier completed his six-year prison sentence in 2011, but he hasn’t been released because he has nowhere to go. Inmates call these extra years behind bars “dead time.”
The Rockford native committed a sex crime, and in order to get out of prison he has to meet the state’s long list of rigid parole requirements for those convicted of predatory criminal sexual assault. He could remain behind bars for the rest of his life if he doesn’t find appropriate housing. For Lindenmeier, that means finding a place to live where, among other things, he is away from children and has no internet-accessible devices like smartphones and smart TVs.
Lindenmeier said he couldn’t afford his own apartment, so he turned to his family for help. But their living situations disqualified them under state law. He said his father lived too close to a park, his mother had a computer and smartphone, his sister had small children, and his dad’s girlfriend’s home was too close to a day care center. The rules even prohibit halfway houses from taking in sex offenders. So he remains behind bars, searching for a home.
And Lindenmeier isn’t alone. He’s part of a class-action lawsuit with other Illinois prisoners in similar situations, though the exact number of sex offenders who remain behind bars after their sentence is unknown. That’s because the Illinois Department of Corrections doesn’t track that information, according to IDOC spokeswoman Dede Short.
When it comes to releasing sex offenders, Illinois has some of the strictest restrictions in the country, said Melissa Hamilton, a senior lecturer of law and criminal justice at the University of Surrey’s School of Law in England. Former state Rep. Elaine Nekritz said that’s because lawmakers want to appear tough on crime.
But Hamilton noted that sex offenders are much less likely to re-offend than most other criminals. For those sex offenders stuck in prison, the laws have left them questioning when they have served their time. But the laws have also created a situation where Illinois residents must weigh the cost of keeping sex offenders out of their neighborhood. It costs about $22,000 per year to house an inmate in Illinois. In keeping Lindenmeier locked for six years past his sentence the state could have spent more than $100,000.
An infinite sentence
Under current Illinois laws, parole for certain sex offenders doesn’t start until they find adequate housing. Only then will a parole board re-evaluate offenders and decide when parole should end. But that wasn’t always the case.
Prior to a 2012 Illinois Supreme Court ruling, a sex offender who couldn’t find compliant housing would serve their parole in prison. Once the term of parole was complete, the prisoner would be released.
But these new parole rules don’t apply to all felonies. They apply to certain sex crimes, such as dissemination of child pornography and aggravated sexual assault, but not for people convicted of crimes like arson, domestic violence, or even murder.
Adele Nicholas, an attorney representing Lindenmeier in the class-action lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections, said the current laws are a violations of constitutional rights.
She said lawmakers looking to score political points with voters have created a host of restrictions that make it difficult for felons to leave prison and adjust back into society.
“Entities involved want to appear like they’re tough on crime, and they don’t want there to be any allegation that they don’t care about the safety of the community,” Nicholas said.
When all of these restrictions are added up — when every school, day care, or park in Illinois is blacked out on a map — there’s a lot of places where someone like Lindenmeier can’t live.
On a larger scale, imagine a map of Illinois, with pins on it for each of the 5,000 elementary and high schools across the state. Add 10,000 more pins for each of the registered day care centers. Add more points for public parks, pools, libraries, malls, and other places where minors could congregate.
Then, cover virtually the whole map because stipulations also restrict living places with access to the internet.
Trapped in the system
Lindenmeier, 34, pleaded guilty in 2005 to sexual contact with a minor. He said family and friends have tried to make changes in their homes to meet the state’s laws — as well as other restrictions laid out for him. It didn’t work.
His mother, 52-year-old Denise Lindenmeier, said when her son’s original release date came up, her daughter was still a minor, which took her home out of the running as a host site. But after her daughter turned 18, state rules about internet access in the home pushed her to make an impossible decision.
“They said he couldn’t come because of the internet,” Denise Lindenmeier said. “But my daughter was in school, and she had to have the internet. I basically had to choose between my two kids.”
Other families have struggled and poured money into trying to get relatives out of dead time.
Alfred Aukema, 43, pleaded guilty in 2013 to statutory rape for having sex with a 15-year-old when he was 37. He said his family has gone to great lengths to get him out of prison. They removed photos of children and outfitted their homes with landlines, which the state says is necessary for the GPS tracker Aukema will be required to wear upon release.
As of November, Aukema was still in dead time.
Aukema said the restrictions put a financial and emotional toll on poor families.
“If you don’t have money or family members that are willing to give up their lives and change their whole routine, you’re stuck in prison,” Aukema said. “You will be trapped in the system.”
Denise Lindenmeier, who is unemployed and on disability, said another family close to the Lindenmeiers went so far as to purchase a house in an area that met all of the requirements set forth by the state, only to have a day care open up nearby shortly afterward.
“It’s been a never-ending nightmare for me,” Denise Lindenmeier said. “I’m to the point now where, you know, I’ve been waiting for a miracle and it’s not gonna come. And I’m really starting to ask myself, ‘Is he gonna be in there my whole life?’”
The Illinois Department of Corrections and the Illinois Attorney General’s office declined multiple requests for comment.
The suit alleges the housing restrictions create a disproportionate burden for poor families. Nekritz, the state representative who retired in September, said she saw that burden firsthand during her 15 years in office.
“I have been contacted by a number of families who are just looking for some relief and some stability so they can move on with their lives, and it’s hard to give them hope,” Nekritz said. “To my mind, the law is completely unjust when it comes to impacts on those families.”
She said she recalls how quickly lawmakers would rally behind increased “enhancements” to sex offender laws.
“They would just sail through, because there was no objection to them,” Nekritz said. “But as it turns out, as I’ve now learned, many of (the laws) are conflicting with each other. They’re cumbersome and almost impossible for someone who is on the sex offender registry to comply with.”
Hamilton, the lecturer at the University of Surrey’s School of Law in England, called the laws “a de facto civil commitment.” She noted that the restrictions are inconsistent with scientific evidence.
“Fear of sex offenders is based mostly on myth,” Hamilton said. “Some subsets of sex offenders pose higher risks for re-offending than others, but most pose a relatively low risk of re-offending.”
Nekritz said change will likely only come through lawsuits, like the class-action suit making its way through the courts. The suit alleges the housing restrictions create a disproportionate burden for poor families.
In August, U.S. Judge Virginia Kendall denied the state’s request to have the suit dismissed.
“There is no particularly convincing reason for individuals such as J.D. Lindenmeier to continue to sit in prison on the taxpayer’s dime because of his indigent status,” Kendall wrote.
For now, the rules mean Lindenmeier will continue his revolving door of visits to the parole board every six months. He’s now almost 11-and-a-half years into a six-year sentence.
“Basically, when I go in there, they ask me if I have any addresses to submit to them for host sites,” Lindemeier said. “Most of the time, the answer I have for them is ‘no,’ in which case they tell me that they’ll see me again in another six months.”
Max Green is an independent radio producer and reporter in Chicago. Follow him at @MaxRaphaelGreen.