A federal judge in Chicago has found the Illinois Department of Corrections is violating the constitutional rights of prisoners convicted of certain sex crimes by making the restrictions on where they can live so stringent that inmates are often locked up long beyond their sentences.
In a ruling issued Sunday, Judge Virginia Kendall wrote that hundreds of offenders in the state’s prison system successfully complete their entire court-ordered sentences yet remain behind bars indefinitely. Kendall found the corrections department is depriving them of fundamental rights, and if they had money and support, they’d be able to leave and begin serving out what’s called “mandatory supervised release.”
Mark Weinberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the decision could mean relief for hundreds of people who have been in prison even though they’ve served their time.
“A plaintiff of mine called me [today] to say it’s the talk of the prison,” he said. “There are ways to protect public safety but holding people in prison long after their sentences are over isn’t the proper way to do it.”
In 2017, WBEZ visited and spoke with J.D. Lindenmeier, one of the plaintiffs in the case. At that time, Lindenmeier had been behind bars six years past his court-ordered release date. But he’s still in prison today, a total of eight years beyond his sentence because he can’t find a place to live that complies with the state’s requirements.
Prisoners call the time they serve beyond their sentences — often many years — “dead time.”
In the 2017 interview, 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 with internet access, his sister had small children, and his dad’s girlfriend’s home was too close to a day care center — all violations of the state’s housing rules for offenders like Lindenmeier.
Kendall cited his case in her ruling.
“[Lindenmeier’s] continued imprisonment is not the result of the underlying offense but is instead the consequence of his indigency, homelessness, and the attendant powerlessness to procure housing that will satisfy the IDOC,” Kendall wrote. “Lindenmeier’s incarceration, then, is for reasons completely beyond his control.”
The Illinois Department of Corrections and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office refused months of requests for comment during WBEZ’s initial reporting on the matter. Both IDOC and the Attorney General’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Will Mingus, executive director of the nonprofit Illinois Voice for Reform which advocates for more effective sex offender policies, says the state’s laws are counterproductive — they actually keep these prisoners from receiving the support that research shows will help them rehabilitate.
“The laws [the legislature is] creating are not solving the problem, they’re not creating safety, they’re creating the illusion of safety,” Mingus said. “Studies that have been done for years now you’ll see that having stable housing, having a job, having social support, those are the things that help people reintegrate into society and help reduce recidivism.”
Mingus said he understands it is difficult to have practical conversations around paroling and rehabilitating sex offenders, but he thinks the judge’s ruling is common sense.
“I think it’ll be a win for the people currently sitting in prison long past their out date because they simply cannot find a place to parole to,” Mingus said. “But I think it’s also a win in the sense that maybe other judgements and other court decisions will be based on this common sense perspective instead of the hysterical perspective.”
Adele Nicholas, an attorney for the plaintiffs, says there are a couple of potential solutions the department of corrections could implement.
“One would be making available different forms of free housing that people who can’t afford a place to live could go to,” Nicholas said. “Whether that’s allowing people to parole to homeless shelters, or making it so there are halfway houses people could live in, or work release.” Currently, there are no halfway houses in Illinois that will accept someone convicted of a sex offense.
Kendall wasn’t clear on exactly what the solution will be to get the men released from prison quickly. She expects to hold a hearing April 22 to begin determining that, she wrote.
Max Green is a WBEZ news producer. Follow him @MaxRaphaelGreen.