Illinois Sex Offender Laws Under the Microscope
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“I want our criminal justice system to work,” State Representative Elgie Sims (D-Chicago) who is helping lead the effort said at a recent task force meeting in downtown Chicago.
“I want our communities to be safe and I am always looking for ways to improve on what we are doing,” he says.
Among those in attendance of the public hearing were two mothers sitting on different sides of the room. Both were there to share their stories, but for very different reasons.
“I changed as a mom that day. Stephanie has changed, our whole family has changed,” says Tina Estopare, a former Plainfield resident, describing the 2011 sexual battery of her then 15-year-old daughter Stephanie. The perpetrator Clifton Kucha (name has been changed) was a neighbor and friend of the family.
“He had her in the room, in the basement for 3 hours with his two year old son in the room watching,” Tina Estopare described.
Kucha was ultimately charged and convicted of misdemeanor battery but was not required to register as a sex offender in Illinois. The crime, though legally deemed sexually motivated, slipped through what Tina Estopare describes as a loophole in the system.
“We had asked the states attorney to register him on the sex offender registry,” she says. “I automatically assumed that is what it would be because it was of sexual nature of what happened and the states attorney asked and the judge said that in the state of Illinois, battery is not considered a sex offense.”
Since the assault of her daughter, Tina Estopare has gathered over 300 letters of support from school superintendents, park districts, and law enforcement in support of a bill that would close the loophole. HB 0816, also known as “Stephanie’s Law,” would allow judges’ to require someone convicted of sexual battery to register as a sex offender in Illinois. The current bill has over 70 legislative sponsors but still has not been passed into law.
“I think some of the biggest challenges are the fact that we are in this wave of recidivism, we are trying to say that there are too many people in prison and that we need to be softer on crime and especially on this issue I disagree,” says State Representative Mark Batinick, (R-Plainfield) one of the bills co-sponsors.
Rep. Batinick says another concern is that under the current database, sex offenders are not classified based on the severity of their crimes or their risk to the public.
“Clearly all sex crimes are not the same,” Rep. Batinick says. “Looking at the computer is certainly different than attacking a minor in a park, which is different than two teenagers that do something consensually,” he says.
In Illinois there are over 29,000 people on the sex offender registry, according to the Illinois State Police Registration Unit. This public database gives law enforcement and the public information on where registered sex offenders live, and bans offenders from being within a certain distance of schools, parks, and other areas frequented by children.
“It seems like we are missing people that are doing some of the more serious crimes and not making the registry altogether and we are capturing some of the ones that maybe it was not as serious as some of the people who are not even on it,” Rep. Batinick says.
Carol Nesteikis of Oak Forest attended a recent task force meeting and says the tentacles of the current sex offender laws are far-reaching and destroying families. In 2012, her mentally disabled son David (name has been changed) was persuaded by a neighbor, who had also been molesting him, to engage in an act with an underage female victim.
“He was arrested with the neighbor and prosecuted, and he ended up on the registry for 10 years,” Nesteikis says.
Nesteikis and her husband accepted a plea deal to keep David out of jail. The original charges of 19 felonies were reduced to a misdemeanor which required him to wear an ankle bracelet as part of his two year probation sentence. “He was fitted with an ankle bracelet that he was so scared of he slept for two years with his leg on a pile of blankets,” Nesteikis says. “He was so afraid that if he moved it would go off and they would come to get him.”
David’s sentence and label as a sex offender also required him to move away from his neighborhood because the female victim lived nearby. His disabilities inhibit him from caring for himself, dividing their family and forcing Nesteikis’ husband to find a new residence where he could care for their son.
“My son does not understand any of what is going on here,” Nesteikis says. “His attorneys had to whisper things he had to say in court to the judge,” she says.
The entire ordeal has costed Nesteikis and her husband over $150,000 in legal fees and the cost of having to re-locate David. It has also put constraints on her entire family, limiting future plans to the registry restrictions, limiting where they go each day and forcing David into isolation.
“He was very active in special recreation and Special Olympics,” Nesteikis says. “That was his life, he can't do any of that anymore.”
David also lost the part-time job he had cleaning tables following the sentence. Nesteikis says the last two psychologist analysis’ report his IQ is falling due to lack of stimulus and seclusion.
But like Tina Estopare, Carol Nesteikis hasn’t given up either. In addition to co-founding the group Legal Reform for Intellectually/Developmentally Disabled (LRIDD), she continues to advocate on behalf of her son through her work with other groups like The Arc and Women Against Registry. In Chicago, she stands before the task force committee sharing David’s story, and pleading for changes to sex offender laws on behalf of countless other parents whose children have disabilities too. The current laws are destroying families, she says. They are putting people like David at even greater risk by publishing his address, making him a potential by vigilantes who see him as a threat to the community.
“It's not protecting the victims and it's not protecting people like my son who has disabilities,” Nesteikis says of current sex offender laws. “It involves everybody and nobody is benefiting from it.”
The Sex Offenses and Sex Offender Registration Task Force is also being led by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and working with experts in the field, law enforcement, community-based organizations, and people affected by current registry laws. The task force is assigned to deliver their findings and recommendations, based upon research and public hearing, to the Illinois General Assembly by January 2018.