“These are people that need assistance,” says Schwartzman. “For public safety, we want to make sure that they get the assistance they need, that they are monitored and they are watched.”
However they’re implemented, residency restrictions may do more harm than good, says Ted Glackman, executive director at the Joseph J. Peters Institute, which provides counseling to sex offenders in Philly. “There’s no clear evidence at all that those residency considerations either protect children or reduce recidivism,” Glackman says. What does reduce recidivism — from 15 percent, he says, to under 10 percent — is treatment, of the type often mandated during parole.
CP heard from more than a dozen Philly men unable to secure home plans after several years of attempts. Among them: Kevin Keith, a West Oak Lane janitorial supervisor now serving a 3½-to-17-year sentence. Keith became eligible for parole in 2008, but all of his proposed home plans — among them, to his sister’s place, an ex-girlfriend’s house, a Kensington boarding house and Just for Jesus — were rejected. In all likelihood, he could stay in prison, at our expense, until the end of his sentence, still nine years away.
That Keith is, quite possibly, set to spend an extra 13 years in prison might not bother you. But, there’s another twist, already under way, that complicates things.
It’s this: Parole guidelines were quietly relaxed starting in June, according to the Rev. John Rush of Reading’s New Person Ministries, another program with a high volume of sex offenders. Before, forms he received from the state indicated that anyone who had committed a crime against a minor could not live within 1,000 feet of a day care, school or playground. The new guidelines leave it to the parole officer’s “personal discretion,” says Rush.
Rush says, as a result, the number of sex offenders awaiting approval of home plans could soon drop precipitously: “Now, because of that policy change, in the next several months, a number of people will be getting out.” He expects about 500 to be released before long.
In the meantime, the newer, vaguer rules also put the state parole board conveniently on the right side of the state Supreme Court decision on residency restriction ordinances. “It may seem like we’re doing something like some of these ordinances are,” says Dunn, the Board of Probation and Parole spokesman, “but we’re following best practices for sex-offender supervision.”
Dunn confirmed that the policy had been changed, and says the board now takes things case by case: “Everything is specific to that offender and that neighborhood.”
Pittman, however, has another way of describing it: “a very arbitrary situation.”
Inmates still receive all sorts of reasons for home-plan denials. When it comes to Just for Jesus, “no ties to the community” has become a common explanation for denial.
Rush, on the other hand, often does get home plans approved for his New Person Center. He manages that through a cautious and cordial relationship with the regional parole district, rejecting about 95 percent of those requesting his help and agreeing to various conditions and demands — like refusing to accept offenders from Philadelphia.
“The average parole agent in our experience doesn’t want to rock any boats and wants his pension someday,” Rush admits. “It’s no skin off of his back if the person is greatly inconvenienced or has to live under a bridge or stay in jail.”
Just for Jesus’ Wisor says that while ministries like Rush’s do good work, they don’t necessarily help his cause. “The cherry-picking [of more palatable cases] is what makes it very difficult.”
This past Monday, the Daily News ran the headline “Suburban park listed as sex predator’s home,” atop an article about community outrage in Upper Darby, where an SVP is registered as living in a park used by “hundreds of kids and families.”
What the story didn’t mention is that some 2,000 sex offenders live, work or study in Philadelphia — including many in various states of housing instability. A law enacted in February made it legal for Megan’s Law registrants to list themselves as homeless; before that, those without addresses were summarily hauled back to jail. Today, while only a handful of sex offenders in Philadelphia are registered as homeless transients with no fixed address, dozens more move in and out of the city’s homeless shelters, which, unlike many others across the state, do admit sex offenders and SVPs.
Iraina Salaam, social services supervisor at St. John’s Hospice, a men’s shelter at 12th and Race, gets drifts of letters every week from sex offenders. The shelter accepts many of them (10 are registered there), though some cases are rejected because of the number of children who volunteer there.
“Almost every letter, somewhere or other in the letter, it says something about a sexual offense,” says Salaam. “I have a stack sitting right next to me. I didn’t know this many prisons existed in Pennsylvania. Frackville and places I never heard of before: Marienville, Huntingdon, Somerset, Albion, Huntsdale. I never heard of all these places, and I’m writing to these guys all the time.”
Salaam does sign off on many inmates’ home plans — with a caveat. “We’re not a hotel. I never know when a bed’s going to be available,” she says. Occasionally, a parole officer will make an exception, but “most of the time, [the home plans] get rejected because of the indefinite availability of our beds.”
That conditional acceptance is more than most other shelters can offer. Jason Miller, associate director of clinical services at Our Brothers’ Place at Ninth and Hamilton, says he is “bombarded with letters from current prisoners” but does not sign home plans, since all guests must go through the city’s central homeless intake.
Once sex offenders do arrive at the shelter (generally after maxing out their sentences), getting them out is even harder. “They’re some of the hardest men to place,” says Miller. Seventeen offenders are registered at Our Brothers’ Place. “These men face so many issues with poverty, lack of work, drug and alcohol issues. And when they have a criminal background, it becomes very difficult to move them on. A sex offense adds one more level.”
Both Miller and Salaam say the end of cash assistance for people with low incomes — eliminated from the state’s budget this summer — will make it even harder for offenders to save up enough to move out of the shelter. Miller often tries to place them with family or friends: “You have to get very creative.”
A better option, with more supervision, might be a halfway house — but many halfway houses will not accept sex offenders. And homeless shelters are not rehabilitation programs: Therapy is optional.
Meanwhile, the city-run prisoner-re-entry program, the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders, does not accept sex offenders. One program that did, the Prison Society’s Philly ReNew, shut down earlier this summer.
“Re-entry programming would be really helpful for that classification of folks,” says the Prison Society’s Schwartzman, who gets constant phone calls from desperate families of inmates. “It’s more and more difficult for them to really be able to make it once they’re on the outside.”
Rush says allowing offenders to fall into desperation is exactly what state and local agencies should be looking to avoid. “I’m not sure what’s more dangerous,” he says, “than a hopeless person that has nothing to lose.”