Housing Restrictions Keep Sex Offenders in Prison Beyond Release Dates

Last week the prestigious New York City Bar Association hosted an important live panel discussion, “Banished from New York City.” A packed house heard about New York’s draconian sex laws including one with the innocent sounding name of SARA that has people in prison held past their release dates. Kudos to Christina Wong and the panel organizers and everybody at the NYC Bar Association for bringing attention to this issue. Here’s more information about the event and a link to the archived audio – have a listen! Also below is a news story for background. –Bill Dobbs, The Dobbs Wire

August 21st, 2014

Dozens of sex offenders who have satisfied their sentences in New York State are being held in prison beyond their release dates because of a new interpretation of a state law that governs where they can live.

The law, which has been in effect since 2005, restricts many sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school. Those unable to find such accommodations often end up in homeless shelters.

But in February, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which runs the prisons and parole system, said the 1,000-foot restriction also extended from homeless shelters, making most of them off limits because of the proximity of schools.

The new interpretation has had a profound effect in New York City, where only 14 of the 270 shelters under the auspices of the Department of Homeless Services have been deemed eligible to receive sex offenders. But with the 14 shelters often filled to capacity, the state has opted to keep certain categories of sex offenders in custody until appropriate housing is found.

About 70 of the 101 sex offenders being held are New York City residents, prison authorities said. Some have begun filing habeas corpus petitions in court, demanding to be released and claiming the state has no legal authority to hold them.

The onus of finding a suitable residence upon release is on the sex offender; the state authorities will consider any residence proposed, but will reject it if it is too close to a school or violates other post-release supervision conditions.

But the corrections department changed its approach this year, after reports by a state senator, Jeffrey D. Klein, detailing how sex offenders were living within 1,000 feet of a school, often in homeless shelters. Prison authorities say they are holding the sex offenders until the shelter system notifies them of additional space in the few shelters far enough away from schools, such as on Wards Island.

“We are continuously monitoring and updating policies to further improve public safety, and Senator Klein’s inquiry was a trigger for a review,” corrections department officials said in a statement.

The agency said that while it did “not in any way seek to hold offenders in prison,” it would not release certain categories of sex offenders to residences within 1,000 feet of a school.

“In New York City,” the agency added, “that is a challenge, as many of the sex offender cases are undomiciled upon release.”

Nationwide, cities and states have grappled with what to do with sex offenders after they have served their prison sentences. Various jurisdictions, including New York State, have procedures for sending the most serious or mentally ill offenders, often child molesters, to confinement in psychiatric hospitals. Other sex offenders who have been deemed fit for release must often live as transients, exiled from their families’ homes if they are too close to schools or parks. In some places, the offenders formed encampments in trailers, as in Southampton, in Suffolk County, or below a causeway, as in Miami.

But the situation in New York is now presenting a new twist: The various residency restrictions that have consigned many sex offenders to life as transients are now being interpreted to require their continued incarceration.

Among those affected is Carlos Bonilla, 65, who completed a two-year sentence for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl and taking photos of two girls in their underwear, and who has filed a lawsuit seeking his release. He had planned to move in with his brother, Pedro, but the state authorities denied the request after finding four schools within 1,000 feet of the home on Bryant Avenue in the Longwood section of the Bronx, according to notes cited in court papers by the supervising offender rehabilitation coordinator handling his case.

Mr. Bonilla also proposed living with William, another brother, but William said he could not “have the inmate live with him, as he only has one room and already has a roommate,” according to the coordinator’s notes. As of late June, the notes indicated an intention to “continue to make weekly inquiries regarding alternate proposed addresses.”

Mr. Bonilla’s lawsuit, filed by the Legal Aid Society, cited “the wholesale warehousing of sex offenders that is now occurring” because the corrections department has not found housing for these individuals that is located more than 1,000 feet from a school.
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In legal papers responding to Mr. Bonilla’s habeas petition, an assistant attorney general, Michael G. McMartin, acknowledged that Mr. Bonilla was “serving his post-release supervision” in the custody of the corrections department until an approved residence could be found.

Lawyers who represent sex offenders have prepared a map showing that nearly all of Manhattan is off limits to sex offenders.

The shelter on Wards Island does not have a school within 1,000 feet, but it nonetheless presents another issue: its proximity to the dozens of ball fields on adjacent Randalls Island, where children, often from private schools across the city, come to play.

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Homeless Services, Christopher Miller, said the city’s shelters were housing some 238 sex offenders in shelters at least 1,000 feet from schools. But so far the city has not indicated when it will have room to house more.

“We have a limited number of beds in a limited number of facilities” in compliance with the Sexual Assault Reform Act, which imposes the 1,000-foot limitation, Mr. Miller said.

The state’s position is that it has the legal authority to continue holding the sex offenders — who generally either have reached the end of their full prison terms, or have been approved for release on parole or because of credit for good behavior — because they are largely subject to post-release supervision by the state. In the past, that has typically meant unannounced home visits by parole officers as well as restrictions on Internet use and interactions with minors.

“Our goal is to work with the Division of Homeless Services and inmates to find appropriate housing that meets the necessary legal standards and ensures public safety,” the prison agency said. In the meantime, the agency said, it “will not release homeless offenders” until a suitable residence is available to them.

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