Joliet City Council members unanimously voted Tuesday night to buy a house, with plans demolish it and turn the land into a park — a tactic they hope will legally allow them to force out convicted sex offenders who are living in an apartment building nearby.
The move has drawn the ire of the company that houses the sex offenders and some legal experts who argue that the city’s actions are inhumane and actually make the public less safe by making it difficult for people who have completed their sentences to find stable housing.
The dispute over the building erupted earlier this year when Joliet officials learned that about five sex offenders were placed there, a conflict that highlights the difficulty of finding housing for people paroled after being convicted of sex offenses when community members object to placements. Illinois law prohibits people convicted of sex offenses involving minors from living within 500 feet of schools, playgrounds and day cares.
Some residents of the Joliet neighborhood spoke out about their concerns with the building in meetings that grew heated. Criminal justice experts and the company that provides the housing, though, counter that laws that restrict where sex offenders can live put the public more at risk by removing opportunities for affordable housing and increasing the risk of homelessness. This makes it more difficult for officials to monitor parolees and offer services essential for rehabilitation, they argue.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with community safety and everything to do with lawmakers manipulating the law to rid the community of a population they don’t like,” said Adele Nicholas, a civil rights attorney who is an expert in this area. “It’s an outrageous waste of taxpayer money.”
The building, located north of the downtown area, was purchased in December by NewDay Apartments, a company that specializes in affordable housing for sex offenders.
When they first learned of the building, city officials argued that housing sex offenders together violates state law, but they later learned that the provision had been declared unconstitutional by a federal judge. The judge ruled that the law violated the rights of the offenders who had served their time but were held for months or years longer because the Illinois Department of Correction could not find a place for them to live that complied with the state’s many restrictions.
The city’s strategy now is to build a park within 500 feet of the building, with Tuesday’s City Council vote paving away for the purchase of the nearby house.
Building small parks meant to drive away sex offenders is an approach that municipalities have taken before.
Back in 2013, Los Angeles began planning to install a park in a city neighborhood in order to remove sex offenders in the area, according to the LA Times. The plan for the tiny park barely allowed room for “two jungle gyms, some benches and a brick wall,” the newspaper reported.
A contract says Joliet has agreed to pay $124,000 for the residence, which it plans to bulldoze. It’s unknown when the house was last occupied.
Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said the funds for the park are available in the city’s annual $280 million budget. He said there isn’t a timetable yet for completing the project.
“This was not fair to people in these communities,” O’Dekirk told the Tribune. “It’s not fair to the kids.”
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The measure to purchase the house passed the council with little discussion. One council member said the kids in the neighborhood “deserve a park” while another questioned whether the residents of the building would be grandfathered in under Illinois law.
Nicholas noted that many states with laws restricting where sex offenders live do have provisions that allow offenders who established a residence prior to a park or school being built to stay in their home, but Illinois does not allow for that exception.
However, in a statement released through an attorney, NewDay Apartments said the 500-foot restriction doesn’t apply to all people required to register as a sex offender. If the park plan were to go through, the company said it would still use the building for housing offenders who wouldn’t be subject to the restriction. It called city officials’ plan “unwarranted and deeply concerning.”
“Adding a park within 500 feet of NewDay may change the name of the tenants at NewDay, but it will not stop NewDay from housing registrants there,” the statement said.
The company pointed out that there are more than 30,000 registered sex offenders in Illinois living in every community. The Illinois sex offender registry lists scores of other sex offenders living throughout Joliet. It also said housing sex offenders in clusters makes it easier for officials to monitor them and noted that the occupants of the Joliet building are mandated to attend therapy, wear GPS ankle monitors and are regularly visited by parole officers.
“Every human being needs a safe and stable place to live including people who have committed crimes,” Nicholas said, “and as a practical manner, it doesn’t make communities safer. It makes people homeless.”