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Better way for returning criminals

Something surely is amiss when tax money is going to pay the hotel bills of sex offenders just released from prison.

While Indiana is working with two national organizations to study sentencing laws that caused the state to lead the nation in the increase in prison inmates last year, state officials also need to look at what happens to convicts after they are released.

As Jeff Wiehe’s story last Sunday explained, state correction officials are using federal grants to house some paroled sex offenders in local hotels. One hotel had at least 16 of the ex-convicts at one time.

Housing is the biggest problem many offenders face when getting out of prison, and sex offenders have a particularly difficult time because of laws that prohibit them from living within 1,000 feet of a school, park or child care center. In Fort Wayne, that means vast swaths of the city – particularly in and around the central portion – are off-limits. Consider that each time a new licensed child care operation opens, a new neighborhood becomes off-limits. An extended bike path rules out any sex offender from living within one-fifth of a mile on either side.

Residents have no reason to feel sorry for such offenders, and some obstacles are simply a reality for just-released prisoners. But as a purely practical matter, can an entire city be ruled off-limits to criminals who have served their sentences and are back in the city? At some point, nearly all prisoners return, and if they are homeless, the odds jump that they will commit new crimes.

Lawmakers may have little choice but to allow courts or state correction officials to categorize sex offenders based on the severity of their crimes, giving at least some of them more leeway in where they can live.

Another alternative would be to place the sex offenders in a government-run dorm-style building with security.

Re-Entry Court

Allen County has a similar need for just such a building to house participants in the Re-Entry Court, the program that allows prisoners – not just sex offenders – to be released early in exchange for electronic monitoring and other supervision. County officials have talked about such a building, but disagreements and other problems led to stalemates, and the county had to return $650,000 in state money for such housing.

More state money is likely available, though.

For the sex offenders now living in motels to instead be placed in a county-run building used for Re-Entry Court and other local Community Corrections programs, they would have to overcome a political barrier that state officials should also address. The hotel guests are on parole, a state program that uses state parole officers, who are thinly staffed throughout Indiana. Local judges oversee Re-Entry Court and local house arrest programs, which are staffed with local Community Corrections workers and local probation officers.

Not all counties are the same, but in Allen, local probation has more resources to better monitor returning offenders than state parole.

In addition, participants in Re-Entry Court and other probation programs generally have to pay fees to help cover the costs of services while paroled offenders do not.

Wouldn’t all citizens be better off if sex offenders returning to a community had to participate in a re-entry transition that involved electronic monitoring, supervision and periodic court interaction?

Surely that would be better than sending the offenders to hotels and their bills to taxpayers.