Sex offenders in Illinois are challenging the state law that bans them from entering parks, schools, places providing services for kids, and even "holiday events involving children." The offenders say the rules are so vague that they can't always tell if or when they are breaking the law.
For instance, if a sex offender plays a round of golf on a municipal course—a solitary, adult activity—is that legal (because kids aren't around) or illegal (because it's on parks department land, and therefore a park)?
WBEZ, Chicago's NPR station, reports that the plaintiffs are arguing that the restrictions are so broad:
…it's impossible to know what is or isn't allowed and that means the laws violate the constitution. They're asking a federal judge to immediately suspend certain restrictions on every registered child sex offender in the state of Illinois.
The absurdities of the sex offender laws are readily apparent in another situation one of the plaintiffs is using as an example. He would like to visit his granddaughter, but she lives within 500 feet of her subdivision's playground. Is it legal for him to see her at her home?
State police told him he was allowed to visit as long as he walked straight from his car and back—but the local cops said he wasn't allowed to be there at all.
While a case like this shows that the law's interpretation is completely up for grabs, which is the plaintiff's whole point. It also shows the law is completely pointless, period. Study after study of sex offender residency restrictions has found that they do not make kids any safer. And the idea that an offender has to make a beeline between the door of a home and the door of a car just highlights the make-it-up-on-the-fly nature of the rule. If a sex offender walks over to examine the rose bush next door and then gets into his car, has he posed a threat?
Never mind the fact that when I spoke with Warren Maas, president of the Minnesota Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a man who has treated sex offenders for decades, he said he'd never met one who had grabbed a child from the park, the very scenario that this whole restriction is premised upon.
Then there's the caveat that sex offenders can't "be present at or associated with a facility that provides services directed toward minors." Can they go to a hospital where there's a pediatric ward? Can they go to a library where there's a children's room?
These aren't just rhetorical questions. A person found guilty of violating any of the provisions of the registry risks going to prison as if he had committed not just a minor infraction but a new sex crime. Recall the case of Josh Gravens, who missed registering his new home address by a day and was facing a possible 25 years in prison for it.
With consequences that dire on the line, the rules should be clearer than clear.
And if they actually made any sense in terms of keeping the public safe rather than just punishing our modern-day pariahs, that would be nice, too.