by Jamey Dunn
Unless you spend time in the state Capitol, you would likely never imagine that lawmakers spend a good portion of their time debating a single issue: sex offenders.
A cursory search of the General Assembly’s website shows two dozen bills that deal with sex offenders were introduced since the current legislative session began in January. They include bills requiring sex offenders to register with a university if they are students or workers there, and legislation that pushes the areas where they are allowed to live farther and farther away from places such as schools and parks.
There is a collective groan and eye roll from many Statehouse observers when some of these bills come up for floor debate, not because they think Illinois should take it easy on sex offenders — it would be a difficult task to find anyone who feels that way. It is because the passage of these bills is so politically charged that lawmakers fear voting against them — even bills that are nearly impossible to implement —because they do not want to get labeled as soft on crime by a political opponent during a campaign.
“Illinois for a long time has every new set of legislators come in, and they pass bills on crime because it looks good when you go back home and you say, ‘I’m tough on crime.’ So what happens is, we’re now layered with bill after bill after bill,” Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a Park Ridge Republican, said in the last days of the spring legislative session while debating a bill that pertained to sex offenders. “Most of us will vote for it because it looks bad if you don’t, which is a mistake that happens when we continue to pass these kinds of laws.” Mulligan and 90 of her House colleagues voted in favor of the bill.
When I started out at Illinois Issues as an intern, one of my wry classmates observed that sex offenders were the only group with so much legislation concerning them that did not have a lobbyist. Apparently the idea was not a new one. Illinois Issues reported in June 2005 that future Senate President John Cullerton remarked after several such bills came up in a committee hearing: "It seems like every other bill deals with sex offenders. If they had any money, they should hire a lobbyist." Since then, at least one registered pedophile has come to Springfield to testify in committee about a piece of legislation that would affect sex offenders. And juvenile justice reform organizations lobby lawmakers if they think proposed penalties for minors are too punitive.
However, because the issue is such a political hot potato, little public debate takes place over which ideas are workable and what penalties might hurt those who do not easily fit the description of a pedophile.
“The big thing is, nobody wants to be seen as being soft on sexual perversion,” says Rep. Jim Sacia, a Republican from Pecatonica. A former special investigator with the FBI, Sacia sponsored a bill that would give judges discretion when sentencing offenders in so-called Romeo and Juliet cases. Such cases involve young people who had consenting sexual contact — often within the context of a relationship — but one of the two is under the legal age. People in these cases have been labeled as sex offenders, sometimes for a decade or more, for something they did when they were young that was not a predatory act. “The registry is such a joke, in my opinion anyway, because we continue to treat Romeo and Juliet crimes the same way we do a sexual deviant,” Sacia says. “I literally have five couples that I know of in my district that the man is married to the woman now.” Sen. William Haine, an Alton Democrat, sponsored similar legislation in the Senate, and like Sacia’s bill, it also could not get the necessary support to pass. Haine, a former state’s attorney, says such offenders should not escape punishment but should not have to register. “Those cases should be prosecuted, and people should be deterred.”
Both lawmakers say they will continue to push legislation to change the registry policies. “We’ve had attempts in the past to change this, and they’ve come to naught because of the political fear of voting on anything,” Haine says. It is an indicator of the climate surrounding the issue that two legislators with law enforcement backgrounds and tough-on-crime records — both spoke passionately against the repeal of the death penalty during floor debate — cannot rally support behind such a measure.
One legislator points to a recent audit as an indicator that lawmakers must start thinking about how the bills they pass will be implemented in the future. “I’m as tough as anybody on these offenders, but we need to make sure what we are doing actually does something,” says Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat. He says an audit of the Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB) is a prime example of good intentions that go nowhere in practice.
Auditor General Bill Holland found that the board, whose responsibilities went into effect in 2004, was far from fulfilling its primary goals of tracking sex offenders after they are released from prison. The board has not created a tracking system and does not have a solid plan or timeline to do so. According to the audit, 10,039 sex offenders in Illinois are currently eligible for board monitoring. The audit found that the board was impeded by a lack of staff and funding and by a lack of any laws supporting its efforts.
“Current Illinois law makes it extremely difficult for the SOMB to develop a system to follow the progress of offenders who have completed their sentence,” the audit states. “Under current Illinois law, registration as a sex offender does not require either supervision or monitoring. Approximately two-thirds of registered Illinois sex offenders are not under any form of supervision. Thus, the law does not require that the vast majority of convicted sex offenders who have served their sentence be subject to any mandated supervision or monitoring. As a result, the SOMB faces significant challenges in devising a program to evaluate the treatment progress of sex offenders who are under no legal requirement to report this progress or even cooperate in a minimal way with the SOMB.”
Franks says, “Sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”
He suggests that lawmakers create a commission to look at sex offender laws with a critical eye and make suggestions for clearing out redundancies and concepts that are not being used in practice.
Some lawmakers say a bill to bring Illinois in line with federal legislation would be one way to make the system more coherent, but even Haine, a sponsor of such legislation, warns that such a change should be done with deliberative care.
The federal government is pushing states to pass their own versions of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, also known as the Adam Walsh Act, which would create national requirements for how states deal with pedophiles. If states sign on, it would allow for the sharing of registry information on a national scale.
But the plan has run into controversy. Ohio, the first state to comply, saw thousands of legal challenges from offenders who were ordered to spend more time on the registry than they were originally told. Some of them had already completed their required time and were told they had to start registering again because their crimes had been reclassified. In the end, the state’s supreme court threw out provisions of the bill.
Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming have all signed on to the federal standard. CNN reported that the number of offenders on Wyoming’s registry increased from 125 to 1,450 after the state moved to federal registration guidelines. Activists for juvenile justice reform and civil rights across the nation have voiced opposition, saying the plan paints with too broad of a brush and does not allow law enforcement officials to focus limited resources on those most likely to reoffend.
Those are some of the reasons that Haine says he put the brakes on his Illinois legislation. “I held the bill until October … so we can have people come in and offer their views before we take this leap.”
States were required to comply by the end of July or lose some federal funding in 2012. However, the Illinois State Police submitted the state’s compliance paperwork by the deadline. The feds say it will take about three months to sift through the entries and find out which states made the cut. Haine and a spokeswoman for the state police both say they are not concerned that the state will lose funds. “The federal government’s going to have to wait until we pass it,” Haine says. State lawmakers should be reluctant to take such sweeping changes handed down from the federal government, he says, without first seriously reviewing them. “In some instances, Congress adds things that some congressman dreams up from who knows where, and it may or it may not be a good idea.”
Haine says that when Illinois originated its sex offender registry, lawmakers did not consider some of the potential outcomes, such as the Romeo and Juliet cases. “This wasn’t well thought out a number of years ago when we started down this registration path. … It was a good thing to do, but it wasn’t done with critical thought.”
Sacia agrees: “The devil’s in the details. … We keep striving for perfection … but how many times do we create unintended consequences?”
Haine warns that the politics makes a future rollback next to impossible. “Once we pass these things, and they are signed into law, it is very difficult to go back into the law.”
Haine says when sentencing is the topic of legislative debate, he likes to dust off a quote from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. “He said, ‘The hallmark of the law is reasonableness.’ … And that’s what we’re trying to do here. It shouldn’t be based on an unthinking emotional reaction or a harsh vindictiveness. It should be reasonable.”
Illinois Issues, September 2011