IL: How Illinois Housing Banishment Laws Push People into Homelessness and Prison

Source: boltsmag.org 1/16/24

Organizers with past sex offense convictions are championing a bill in the state legislature that could end the cycle and roll back residency restrictions.

James Orr was in his apartment in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side one Wednesday morning in 2013 when he heard his phone buzz. “James, you have 30 days to move,” an Illinois state police officer on the other end told him. The 62-year-old, who had moved into the apartment with his wife in 2006 after finishing a three-year prison sentence, was incredulous. “What do you mean I have to move?” he asked. He had lived there for seven years.

As part of a previous conviction, Illinois required Orr to appear on the sex offense registry, one of five public conviction registries in the state. The sentence came with a litany of other restrictions that will follow him for the rest of his life. Orr can’t visit parks, forest reserves, schools or playgrounds and must pay a yearly $100 registration fee. He’s also prohibited from living within 500 feet of any school, playground, day care or childcare facility. 

That’s why state police came calling in 2013. “You have to move, sir,” the officer repeated. “A day care moved [within] 500 feet.” Orr says he panicked and started calling around, trying to find a place to go. But each time he found an available apartment, police shot down the address saying it wasn’t compliant with Illinois’s dense web of housing restrictions. 

Orr estimates he checked on more than 20 places but still couldn’t find a legal place to live by the time his month-long window to move drew to a close. He could continue to stay at an illegal address. But if he were caught, he’d be sent back to prison. He and his wife packed their belongings into a storage unit and moved in with his sister, but when he called police to update his address, they told him it was too close to a school. His only other option was to register as homeless—but in all his interactions with police, he says no one told him he could.

It often plays out like this: A person can’t report their address because it’s not legal. Without a legal address, they can’t register. When they don’t register, police pick them up and charge them with a new crime.

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“The reality is that our current policies are not working,” Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, who is the bill’s chief sponsor[.]

As an employee at the state department of corrections in the 1990s, Lightford helped create Illinois’s sex offense registry. But now, after years of enhanced penalties and restrictions, she said, “What we’ve done is disenfranchised a whole population of people.”

Patty Casey, a retired Chicago police commander who oversaw her department’s registration unit, calls the status quo a “lose-lose situation” for both police and people who have to register.

Casey told Bolts she plans to testify in support of the bill to ease residency restrictions and expand housing options during the upcoming legislative session. If signed into law, she said, “we would have so many less homeless persons, and it would be easier on law enforcement and easier on the registrants.”

I respect these women for “seeing the light” about the registry. Granted, they’re not seeking total abolishment but at least they see the registry laws are harmful and do not help society.

I’ll try to take the optimistic approach on this: it’s a step in the right direction. That it’s even being considered and discussed is something nobody would have predicted even 5 years ago.

On a related note, I say again how I’m stunned nobody has managed to get IL’s lifetime ban on forest preserves, schools, etc., struck. In IL, even if one has fully served one’s sentence and has full served one’s registry “sentence,” the ban still applies. In other words, the person is never made whole and never regains full First Amendment protections. (Someone should show IL the 9th CCoA’s take on that. Doe v. Harris, IIRC.) The case that tried to take it down was poorly done and, to my knowledge, never appealed. 🙁

Perfect catch 22. Don’t worry, it’s not punishment. This angers me but then again why is it allowed to just keep going on? I don’t see any end to it….. Ever. This just goes to prove it’s all designed to keep people destitute, shunned, ostracized, forgotten and isolated with a never ending array of gotchyas to jump through “or else”.

sheds light on Illinois’ counterproductive residential banishment laws and calls on our lawmakers to change these discredited policies. It also highlights the great work being done by our friends at The Chicago 400 to advocate for change.  

Read this great article, share it with your networks, and stay in touch with us for more opportunities to support the fight for rational, evidence based laws.