Outside a red brick building in Chicago’s Burnside neighborhood, Odell Whitehorn Jr. recently stood in a line with over a dozen men on a bitterly cold morning. Whitehorn is on the Illinois murder and violence against youth registry, for a crime he committed when he was eighteen-years-old, in 2000. Once a year, Whitehorn is required to register with the Chicago police. This was the fifth time he said he’d attempted to register in the previous couple of weeks.
On the other occasions, Whitehorn said police turned him away because it was too crowded and they didn’t have enough capacity to register everyone. Other men in line complained they’ve faced the same problem.
Whitehorn nervously shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he considered his impossible situation. If he gives up and doesn’t register he could end up in prison. But he can’t skip work and risk losing his job to keep coming back again and again.
Thousands of people in Chicago are on a criminal conviction registry, including registries for gun crimes, sex offenses and murder and violence against youth. People on the registry have to show up yearly, quarterly or weekly or risk getting locked-up. But WBEZ has found men are repeatedly being turned away because of staffing shortages in the Chicago Police Department’s registry office.
Data from public records show CPD routinely registered more than 1,000 people per month in 2018. By the end of 2022, that number had been cut nearly in half.
The team that registers people is “a unit that for some reason the Chicago Police Department, especially the bureau detectives, who oversee this unit, do not care if it succeeds. And right now it is failing,” said Patty Casey, a former Chicago Police Commander who oversaw the registries until she retired in June 2021.
Casey called the situation inhumane — and said people who are trying to comply with the law should be able to do that.
Despite repeated requests for comment, the Chicago Police Department did not respond.
The stakes are high. People on the registry risk arrest and incarceration, causing destabilized families and communities. And Chicago is wrestling with big concerns over public safety and how to use its limited resources to fight violence. Chicago 400 Alliance, an organization led by unhoused people on the registry, said the problems exacerbate an already racist system. They estimate that one in every 147 men in Illinois is on a registry. For Black men it’s much higher: 1 in 42.
“People have gotten jobs, they’re taking care of their families, they’re doing their best and they’re constantly having to come back to the police station to be treated like they’re in custody,” said Laurie Jo Reynolds, an associate professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and the coordinator of the Chicago 400 Alliance. “So they’re really tied down in the weight of this impossible system.”
Victims and their families also say poorly functioning registries are not in their interests. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a victim advocate and director of Marsy’s Law for Illinois, said victims can be retraumatized if the system fails to work as promised “This is a matter of public safety and law. And it is not something that should be a, ‘Oh, only if we feel like it today.’ ”
Barriers to registering
Outside the office, Dale Miller was bundled up, waiting in line to register, which he is required to do every 90 days. He said he lives across town and it had taken him two hours and three buses to get there. He left his house at 4:30 a.m. because he wanted to be near the front of the line since four other attempts to register failed when police told him they were at capacity. But when Miller finally reached the front of the line, he said he had to pay a $100 registration fee and didn’t have the cash. Miller said he’d have to wait until his social security check came later in the month and he would have to make the long trek yet again.
In the past, people could register at police headquarters, located at a relatively central location at 35th and Michigan Avenue. But the location recently changed, and now anyone who registers yearly or quarterly must go to an office on 91st Street on the South Side in Chicago’s Burnside neighborhood. Weekly registrants are assigned to other locations throughout the city. Chicago Police did not answer questions about why the registry office was moved or why it was moved to a non-central location.
Another man in the line, Leo Charles, said the process is even more difficult for people who are unhoused. The law requires those without an address to register every week. Charles has housing now but was previously unhoused. He said his entire week revolved around showing up to register and scrounging together money for transportation. It added an extra barrier to the already arduous task of finding a job and housing.
“You’ve already been convicted, you already served time, you already did what you’re supposed to do. And now, you know, gotta sit out here in the public’s eye just lined up a block long — rain, sleet, snow,” Charles said.
Waiting outside is not just a problem of being exposed to the elements. Some men in the line said it placed them at risk of violence. One young man in the line nervously looked over his shoulder.
“We already registered as gun offenders so we don’t have nothing out here to protect ourselves. So anybody who rides past and sees us, that don’t like us, they can harm us right here and get away with it,” he said.
Before the location change, when people registered at police headquarters, they could wait inside. Casey, the former police commander, said the line outdoors makes the situation much more dangerous — especially since people often have to cross gang lines to register. “I think it’s a drive-by waiting to happen, which is a danger to the registrants and also to the police officers,” Casey said.
Chicago police did not answer questions about the potential danger flagged by the former police commander.
Solutions: Increasing resources or decreasing registries
Casey said in order for registries to operate, they need to have offices at multiple locations, so people can easily and safely register. She also said they need to be reliably open — so people don’t get turned away. All that requires increased staffing. Casey said she believes registries are a useful tool for police, but right now the units are being starved. Victim advocates, like Bishop-Jenkins, agree the city needs to increase resources for its registries. Chicago police did not answer requests for comment about staffing resources, but public records show the number of people working on registries has been significantly cut, from 18 in 2021, to 10 in 2022.
But some victim advocates argue that increasing the number of police working on registries is a distraction from more important work.
Madeleine Behr, the policy manager at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation which provides free legal services for victims of sexualized violence, said CAASE clients sometimes call detectives assigned to their cases and detectives tell them they can’t meet because they are busy doing compliance checks. She said those detectives are busy re-arresting people for technical violations, such as failing to update an address, instead of interviewing victims who need immediate help.
“The more we spend on maintaining this system, we’re not helping survivors, we’re not helping folks in real time,” Behr said.
Reynolds said the Chicago 400 Alliance is working with state legislators to propose a bill that would shrink registries and ease the backlog by cutting the amount of time people spend on the murder and violence against youth registry and eliminating a requirement that unhoused people register weekly.
“If we think that the police have an important role to play, it should be investigating crime or responding to 911 calls or helping people in need. But instead, I’m seeing the police get bogged down by literally thousands of people coming back to re-register at police stations, when all they’re doing is filling out a form of information,” Reynolds said.
Several men in the line complained that if filling out those forms was really in the public’s interest, the city would make it easier for them to actually complete the task. And if safety was the goal — they wouldn’t have them standing outside, exposed.
A car drove by with its window down and one man, worried about a drive-by shooting, pointed at it. “This could get really critical,” he said.
Still, he knew he had to stay in line and register. He said it was his third attempt; other times, the door was locked or the offices were over capacity. He said police had already issued a warrant for him.
Shannon Heffernan covers criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow @shannon_h
WBEZ data editor Matt Kiefer contributed to this story.