The Sex Offender Shuffle

I know the term Kafkesque is overused, but I mean come on.

The Chicago Police Department forces sex offenders to violate their parole. I know that sounds crazy. I thought it was crazy when I first heard about it, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two weeks with sex offenders waiting — for hours and hours — outside police headquarters and watching a Kafkaesque process play out.

Every morning sex offenders start lining up at 6, while it’s still dark out, sometimes even earlier than that, and I probably don’t have to remind you how cold it’s been this winter . . .

People convicted as sex offenders have to register once a year. It basically means they have to go to the police department registration office and update their personal info and show proof of their current address. And if they move, they have to go back to re-register within three days. If they enroll in school they have to re-register within three days. If they change jobs they have to re-register within three days.

There are a lot of requirements and in Chicago, and they can be nearly impossible to meet, not because the offenders don’t want to meet them but because of the way the Chicago Police Department runs the registration office.

When I met Wright in line it was his third time trying to get in the office to register. “Every time we come here they have us standing in this line out here in this cold,” he said.

Wright was turned away the other two days because the office doesn’t have the capacity to process all the sex offenders who show up to register, and Wright’s worried the same thing is going to happen again. “At 12 o’clock they’ll cut the line, they’ll stop the line and tell us to come back tomorrow but I been standing out here already four to five hours,” said Wright.

So surely the sex offenders can’t be punished because the Chicago Police Department won’t let them meet their registration requirements, right? Well, no . . .

Sure enough, an hour later, at 11:45 a.m.,  a man comes out of the registry office and tells Wright and the two dozen other men who have been waiting in the cold all morning, that they won’t be able to register today. But then it gets weirder. The police department employee tells the men they can sign a list that will prove they showed up today to register but then he tells them that even if they’re on the list, they can still be arrested for failing to register.

The men are nervous and they have good reason. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections there are currently 841 people in prison for violating registration requirements.

And of course if you’ve just started a new job, or you’ve just moved, telling your boss that you must take consecutive days off work to go make another attempt to register as a sex offender is good way to end up unemployed.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, some sex offenders who have completed their sentences are being indefinitely detained while the state tries to argue for keeping them locked up for the rest of their lives, anyway.

Look, I realize that few people have any sympathy for sex offenders — although it’s worth remembering that you can get put on these lists for acts far less serious than rape, sexual assault or molesting a kid. If we as a society decide that sex offenders should be shut off from society for the rest of their lives, then let’s pass laws that keep them behind bars. But letting them out, then making it impossible for them to integrate back into society or lead even somewhat normal lives doesn’t serve them, us or anyone else.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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