Controversy in Joliet highlights difficulty of housing sex offenders

At a public meeting in Joliet, residents stood up and spoke out against an apartment building that houses sex offenders in a city neighborhood — with one resident lamenting that she wouldn’t let children play outside unless she was on her lunch break, according to a video taken by an attendee.

Other residents, according to accounts of some at the meeting, advocated for violence against the sex offenders, threatening homicide and arson.

The heated public meeting Wednesday, which centered around an apartment building that houses about six sex offenders, represents a frequent flashpoint between communities and officials around a thorny question: where and how to house and monitor sex offenders after they have completed their sentence.

“We used to play outside everyday,” a resident of the neighborhood said at the meeting, speaking about young children in her care, per video taken by community activist Robert Hernandez. “We can’t go outside.”

While neighbors often push back on this type of housing in their own backyards, some public safety experts say state laws that are overly restrictive about where sex offenders can live after their release actually puts people more at risk by taking away opportunities for stable, affordable housing, an important foundation for rehabilitation.

“It’s a massive crisis throughout the state that has been created by Illinois laws,” said Adele Nicholas, a civil rights attorney who is an expert in this area. “They are creating massive homelessness instability and housing insecurity and not bringing any public safety benefit.”

The controversy in Joliet centers around an apartment building north of the downtown area. It was purchased in December by NewDay Apartments, a company that specializes in affordable housing for sex offenders.

Illinois’ sex offender registry lists six men as residents of the building who were convicted of sex offenses against children 13 or younger.

Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk and other city officials have spoken out against the housing, referencing an Illinois law that says sex offenders cannot live at the same address.

But a federal judge ruled the law unconstitutional about a year ago, stipulating that it 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 myriad restrictions.

“Politicians score these very easy points by just saying let’s banish these folks from being able to live anywhere,” Nicholas said.

Nicholas, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said some attendees made threats of violence against the residents of the apartment building while police and city officials stood by.

“That was just very disturbing,” she said.

In a statement, NewDay Apartments said it was “troubling” that members of city government did not speak up at threats of violence during the meeting.

“The city of Joliet’s suggestion that it would seek to shut down a business operating lawfully within the community is unwarranted and deeply concerning,” according to the statement.

Asked about the threats, O’Dekirk said he did not hear any “direct” threats.”

Despite the federal court ruling, O’Dekirk said the city is still “actively working on a solution.”

“It appears one federal judge superseded the entire Illinois legislature,” O’Dekirk said.

He said he has reached out to IDOC and appealed to the governor’s office for help.

“To put (them) at one location is a horrible idea,” O’Dekirk said.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker said staff told Joliet that the “administration cannot violate a court order that is part of ongoing litigation.”

A statement from IDOC also pointed to the judge’s ruling that invalidated the “one person per address” provision in Illinois law.

NewDay Apartments told the Tribune in a statement that the housing in Joliet complies with all laws and is under the supervision of IDOC. It said that all the residents of the apartment building are “attending mandatory therapy, must wear GPS monitors and receive frequent visits from a parole agent.”

“NewDay Apartments’ commitment to housing registrants fills an urgent need and makes the community safer by providing stable housing to individuals who are working to rebuild their lives and contribute positively to the community,” according to the statement.

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