“There is nothing else I have left to complete,” said Antoine Hartley.
The Louisiana prisoner became eligible for release in 2013. But his inability to find post-release housing approved for sex offenders will likely force him to complete his entire sentence through January 2019 – an extra six years that will cost state taxpayers over $100,000.
“The only thing I need now is a residence where I can get out and start doing everything else that I’m supposed to be doing: getting a job, doing my registration and all that,” Hartley said.
Louisiana categorizes sex offenders by the severity of their convictions. They must register and make publicly available a raft of personal information – name, address, photo, employer, phone number, email address, fingerprints, even a DNA sample – on the state’s Sex Offender & Child Predator Registry. They must remain on the registry for at least 15 years, though more severe offenses require lifetime registration. During that time they must disclose their offender status on social media accounts and are banned from driving a bus, limousine or taxi.
Sex offenders are also subject to housing restrictions. They cannot reside within three miles of their victim, and if the victim was younger than 13 they cannot live within 1,000 feet of places where minors gather, such as a school, playground, day care center or, since a 2013 law took effect, certain areas of public libraries. Significant penalties – up to 20 years in prison – accompany violations of those restrictions.
For 425 Louisiana prisoners convicted of sex crimes, including Hartley, a lack of available housing which meets those criteria is all that blocks their release.
“You have to realize that yes, if they were out, they could be saving us money,” acknowledged Tracy Dibenedetto, the state’s Office of Adult Services program director. “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 [prison].”
It costs taxpayers an average of $51.93 a day to incarcerate an offender as opposed to $24.39 at a community corrections facility and just $2.63 for parole or probation supervision. Keeping the 425 sex offenders who lack approved residences locked up costs $4.8 million annually. If they were released on parole or probation, the cost would be just over $400,000 – saving taxpayers $4.4 million a year. Holding them in prison also increases the chance they will reoffend, as they cannot participate in therapy sessions required while they are on probation or parole.
“[Therapy is] where the individual is really integrating back into life,” said Shannon Smith, who leads sex offender group sessions. “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[s] in place kind of to me is almost like the training wheel before we release the person on their own completely.”
Louisiana’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in the nation – nearly twice the national average – and the problems sex offenders face in leaving state prisons represent just one piece of the larger criminal justice picture.
The state senate is currently considering a bill (HB 195), already passed by the House, that will increase the maximum period of probation from three years to five. A companion bill would delay the start date of a 2017 law that reduces the financial burden of restitution by extending the time-frame in which released prisoners have to pay off the debt.
In April 2018, the Louisiana legislature voted down a bill that would have removed non-violent and non-sexual crimes from those covered under the state’s “habitual offender” law – which uses prior convictions to increase the penalties for a subsequent conviction.
State Public Defender James Dixon said the law’s potential for lengthy sentences changes the “entire outlook of the defense” – away from avoiding conviction and toward cutting a plea deal.
“Innocence and guilt should be paramount, but I’m telling you with the multiple bills and the leverage it provides, guilt and innocence become secondary,” Dixon added.
A policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Sarah Omojola, said “just the threat” of more serious punishment for even low-level crimes “creates an imbalance in [the] criminal justice system” – one which “pushes people to agree to disproportionate prison sentences and plead guilty to crimes they didn’t actually commit.”
But the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, Pete Adams, defended the habitual offender law as a tool that district attorneys need to protect communities from career criminals.
Sources: The Advocate, www.thomasdamico.com, KALB-TV
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