Police have a plan for keeping offenders away from children

Police have a plan for keeping offenders away from children

Do you live near a school, playground or day care center?

If you do, there are laws that are intended to prevent child sex criminals from living nearby.

But the laws are not always clear on some terms – such as what constitutes a park or day care center. Different jurisdictions handle such enforcement differently and, so far, locally, it's been rare for prosecutors to file charges.

Police in Champaign and Mattoon hope to make enforcement of residency restrictions for child sex offenders easier by using computerized maps. Officers in those two cities recently issued notices to appear in court for child sex offenders living too close to schools, parks or playgrounds and child care centers.

A 46-year-old Champaign man with an address on Paula Drive was arraigned May 3 on a Class 4 felony charge accusing him of living with 500 feet of Garden Hills School. He previously was convicted of child pornography and was sentenced in 2000 to three years of probation, which he successfully completed.

He and thousands of others convicted of child sex crimes are prohibited from living within 500 feet of a place designed exclusively for those under 18.

Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz said the law, which has been in effect since January 2000, has several conditions that have not been documented in most Champaign police reports – including that the child sex offender knowingly lives within range of an area designated for children.

"The reports we have been getting from them basically say, 'so and so lives within 500 feet of a park or day care,' " Rietz said. "With the day care ones, we are concerned that the person may not know it is a day care, particularly if it is a home-based day care.

"With the park ones, we are concerned that (the police) are using the 'mini-parks' for their criteria, rather than actual playgrounds. The statute specifically says playgrounds, so I do not think the legislature intended to include the flower beds we call 'mini-parks' in this statute."

Rietz said her office will work with police so that officers know what is needed to appropriately charge these cases.

"I would prefer that we, generally, give the sex offenders the opportunity to move, and if they don't move within a specific time, then we would file charges," Rietz said.

"I understand and agree with the concerns citizens have about child sex offenders living in our neighborhoods. We must be aware and cautious with regard to the safety of our children. At the same time, we must follow the law. If we allow ourselves to live in fear, then those who break the law win."

Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney said the state's attorney can decide if there is a grace period between when a child sex offender is living in a prohibited area and when he or she is cited for violation.

Officers from each of the three Champaign police districts handling the 500-foot rule violations checked to see that child sex offenders still live where they are registered, he said. If that falls within the 500-foot buffer zone, they were cited.

Police issued 20 citations over three weeks in April, he said.

Exceptions were made for one man already selling his property and for another dealing with a rental agreement, Deputy Chief John Murphy said.

"The whole point was to get them out of the 500-foot area," he said.

Murphy said the police worked with the city's planning department to develop a map showing child sex offender residences and prohibited areas.

"We felt very comfortable they were, in fact, living within 500 feet," Murphy said.

Champaign police define day care centers as facilities licensed by the Department of Children and Family Services, Finney said.

"The onus is on the offender to determine whether they are living in a proper area," he said. "It's not up to police. We need to monitor them, but it's up to them to come within the legal restrictions."

Police decided to issue a court summons for a violation rather than make a physical arrest, allowing the state's attorney's office to review police reports and decide whether or not to charge a person, Murphy said.

The system does a good job of tracking child sex offenders, he said. Police know which residences came under a "grandfather" clause, which exempts residency restrictions for those who owned property before the law took effect.

In Champaign, the sex offender verification and child sex offender residency enforcement are done in each district, with shift commanders making decisions on when to allocate officers to such duties.

In Mattoon, police and the Coles County State's Attorney's Office announced the formation of a sex offender compliance team to "provide continuous, diligent monitoring of registered sex offenders in the community."

Mattoon Deputy Chief Dave Griffith said five officers, including two supervisors and one patrol officer from each of the three shifts, are on the team.

In addition to their regular patrol duties, the officers will verify that sex offenders are living where they are registered.

"They become familiar with people," he said.

The officers meet face to face with registered sex offenders so they recognize them when the officers drive by a school or park.

Mattoon also has a map prepared by the Coles County Planning Department. Released in April, it pinpoints residences of all registered sex offenders.

In blue shading, the map also marks the 500-foot buffer zones around day care centers, parks and schools. It helps the compliance team check whether a child sex offender is living in a prohibited area, Griffith said.

Four offenders moved after being informed they were too close to a park or day care center but didn't realize it, he said.

"We expect them to live within the restrictions they have placed on themselves by violating the law," Griffith said. "Most of them, here in town, really try to comply."

Griffith also said the terms may be tricky.

"Playgrounds have to be exclusively designed for children," Griffith said. "If they've got a basketball hoop, they could be used by older people."

In Urbana, Investigator Rich Surles, who monitors sex offender compliance, said officials try to avert problems with child sex offender residency in advance.

"We try to prevent them from registering at a residence that is prohibited," Surles said.

Urbana police clerks who do most of the sex offender registration are familiar with the town and know the locations of schools and parks, he said.

"The tricky part is the in-home day care centers," Surles said.

In the past year or so, Surles said he has sent one report to the state's attorney's office for prosecution of violation of the 500-foot rule.

"We prevented the problem," Surles said. "He was given a conditional discharge, and he moved. That's what the statute is intended to do."

Danville Officer Jim Smutz, an investigator who monitors sex offender registration, said he regularly checks addresses of registered sex offenders to see that they are living where they said they were.

Danville has more than 100 registered sex offenders, Smutz said, although he could not say how many are child sex offenders.

"Each case I look at, I check whether they are living within 500 feet of a school, park or day care center," he said. "If they are, I go out right away and tell them they have to move. I can't remember any not moving."

Cara Smith, policy director for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said about 18,500 registered sex offenders live in Illinois; about 87 percent are child sex offenders.

"We have an all-time high of just under 93 percent" for sex offenders complying with registration laws, she said.

Chicago and Cook County also use mapping software to pinpoint child sex offender residency, Smith said, and the Cook County Sheriff's Office has done sweeps and arrested violators.

The law has some language that is not clear, Smith said, but "the clear intent of these and other residency restrictions is to create 'sex offender free' zones or protective zones around areas in which children learn and play."

An informal survey of law enforcement by the state prosecutor's office shows enforcement practices for the 500-foot rule vary. For example, Rantoul gives a 24-hour notice of violation; the Madison County Sheriff's Office gives a 48-hour notice.

According to the informal survey, the Rockford Police Department gives a two-week notice to violators to move; the Bradley Police Department gives a 30-day written notice with a follow-up visit the last 10 days; and the McHenry County Sheriff's Office gives a 30-day notice with extension up to 60 days on a case-by-case basis.

Rantoul Police Chief Paul Farber said, "Once they have established themselves, we have to give them that time to re-establish residency."

Farber said Rantoul tries to prevent problems by checking addresses against schools and parks at the time child sex offenders register with the police records division.

"If we find somebody in violation, we only give them 24 hours to move out," he said. "Thereafter, if we find they have moved too close, they are given a summons and it goes to the county state's attorney."

Such citations in Rantoul amount to perhaps two or three a year.

The Rantoul chief said checks are made each April to see that sex offenders are in compliance. That includes a face-to-face encounter between an officer and sex offender and a check of mail or other proof of residency, he said.

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