More than 400 Louisiana prisoners who are otherwise eligible for early release can’t leave correctional facilities because they are unable to find an approved place to live that complies with the state’s sex offender requirements.
Instead they must wait for their full-term release date, costing taxpayers roughly $13,000 a day, only to be released without supervision or requirements for classes or therapy.
For Louisiana corrections officials, this poses a conundrum. It is important to release offenders only when they can meet the strict living restrictions for registered sex offenders, they said, or else the inmate is likely to end up back behind bars again. But they also noted the extra time in prison robs the state of the opportunity to require these prisoners to attend therapy or be under supervision on the outside, which is key to their potential success back in society.
“The problem with that is if they don’t get out then they’re full term and we have no supervision over them, we can’t help them get adjusted, can’t make sure they’re going to their classes and we can’t keep a close eye on them at least for the time that we have them,” Probation and Parole Director Pete Fremin said.
People convicted of certain crimes — such as video voyeurism, human trafficking, sexual battery and rape — must register as sex offenders in Louisiana for a period of time dictated by the "tier" of the conviction. Sex offenders then must comply with a series of requirements about where they can live, including that they cannot reside within three miles of their victim and those whose victims were under 13 years old cannot live within 1,000 feet of places where minors would gather, like schools, playgrounds or day cares.
Incarcerated sex offenders need to secure an approved home that complies with these restrictions before they can be released on probation. Right now, the 425 men and women eligible for early release have otherwise earned so-called "good time" in prison, meaning that they participated in certain programs and had good behavior behind bars. This accrued early release, however, is overshadowed by their lack of an approved residence.
Many of the men and women in this situation are in prison on a subsequent offense than the conviction that required them to register as a sex offender because sex offenses often require the person to serve a fixed sentence without eligibility for early release, according to Tracy Dibenedetto, the Office of Adult Services program director.
Not only are these men and women released without probation and parole supervision, but they won't get the guidance that comes with mandatory therapy or classes. Without mandated enrollment in these courses, it is unlikely they will attend, said Shannon Smith, who leads group sessions for sex offenders in Baton Rouge.
“(Therapy is) where the individual is really integrating back into life,” said Smith, who previously worked as a victim’s advocate in the probation system in Connecticut. “The adjustment period is so different and without the added support, which really probation and parole can provide, it’s difficult to re-adjust. Having those community supervision in place kind of to me is almost like the training wheels before we release the person on their own completely.”
Louisiana pays $51.93 a day for inmates in state facilities, while those in local facilities cost $24.39 per day. In comparison, it only costs $2.63 a day for each person under probation and parole supervision. Between state and local facilities, the 425 offenders in this situation cost $13,229.91 per day, compared to the $1,117.75 that is would cost if they could be released on probation and parole.
Due to the registration laws, sex offenders must register in person with their local sheriff and police department within three days of release with an approved residence. A violation of the requirements or a failure to register could quickly mean another jail term, Dibenedetto explained.
“You have to realize that yes, if they were out they could be saving us money,” Dibenedetto said. “The problem is ... they get out and they don’t have a place to go, which is a violation of law, which means they get ... put back in (jail).”
That cycle is less frequent since the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections established the procedure to pre-approve housing for inmates hoping to get out early, according to Derek Ellis, a probation and parole program manager. But he noted that it still happens.
The number of offenders waiting their full term to be released after failure to secure an approved residence has grown over the years and continues to fluctuate, Dibenedetto said. The list has gotten longer as more requirements have been added that restrict where sex offenders can live, she said.
Many sex offender requirements are based in the national Adam Walsh Act, which was named after a 6-year-old boy who was abducted and killed in Florida in 1981. The 2006 federal law requires the national sex offender registry and imposes penalties for non-compliance, including more time behind bars.
Every survivor of sexual assault is different and while some may want their offenders on the sex offender registry, others might not feel as strongly about it and the attached residency requirements, said Brittany Hunt, the justice systems coordinator at the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault.
“What I’ve heard from a lot of survivors is that these crimes had such a severe influence on the victim’s life that it should also have a severe influence on the perpetrator’s life,” Hunt said of those who do feel strongly about the registry.
Overall, Hunt said LaFASA wants to focus on preventative measures for sex offenses and added that she considers the registry to be reactive.
"Someone who gets out of jail and then has unstable housing, doesn't have a support system, can’t get a job, that’s putting them in a spot where they might be more likely to reoffend," she said. "That’s only going to make them more desperate.”
Dibenedetto said that transition specialists work with inmates with upcoming release dates to try and help them meet the requirements, including by recommending shelters and investigating proposed locations. The support of family and friends is also key, she said.
Baton Rouge-based One Touch Ministry receives daily requests from registered sex offenders who need help finding housing, said Verna Bradley-Jackson, a re-entry housing specialist with group. The organization tries to help them as much as they can, but she said it’s difficult even when family is supportive.
Family can only do so much for Antoine Hartley, who has spent 18 years in Louisiana prisons and must wait until January 2019 for his full-term date, though he could have been released with good time in 2013.
His mother lost her home in Hurricane Katrina and still lives with relatives who have a small child in the home. His sister lives in Georgia with her large family and a young grandchild. Hartley is restricted from living with a young child due to his previous convictions of molestation of a juvenile and forcible rape.
Hartley said he has met about 20 others in his situation during his time at Winn Correctional Center and now at Dixon Correctional Center, but none of those men found an approved residence before their full-release date.
Searching for housing behind bars has been difficult because he does not have access to the Internet to find possible addresses or landlord phone numbers. Inmates are also only allowed to have 20 approved phone numbers on their contact list.
Other than an approved residence, Hartley completed his required courses, including anger management in 2013.
“There’s nothing else I have left to complete,” Hartley said. “The only thing I need now is a residence where I can get out and start doing everything else that I’m suppose to be doing: getting a job, doing my registrations and all that.”