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Top court weighs if sex offenders be detained after sentences completed

New York State Court of Appeals in Albany.

New York State Court of Appeals in Albany. Credit: Google Map

ALBANY — New York’s highest court will hear arguments Tuesday on the constitutionality of a law that allows the state to keep certain sex offenders in prison even after they have completed their sentences if they haven’t secured appropriate housing.

Criminal defense lawyers say the law violates due process guarantees and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Further, they say the plain language of the law shows it applies only to offenders who are still on parole or who were released early from their sentences — not those who fully completed their sentence.

Arguing for the governor and State Legislature, Attorney General Letitia James says New York courts already have settled this question in two previous cases, determining that housing conditions can be imposed on ex-inmates who are still under "post-release supervision."

At issue is a law the State Legislature and Gov. George Pataki approved 20 years ago to oversee convicted sex offenders.

The "Sexual Assault Reform Act" imposed, among other things, mandatory restrictions on the movements of certain convicted sex offenders. Upon release, the offender must find suitable housing that is more than 1,000 feet from any school grounds, among other conditions.

The Court of Appeals will hear arguments from four ex-inmates who are challenging the state’s authority to hold them indefinitely in prison or prison-based residential treatment facilities after their prison terms were expired or were granted parole.

In each of the cases, the inmate was held past his release date because he couldn’t secure housing that complied with the law’s requirements.

An array of criminal defense groups, including the New York State Defenders Association, filed a brief in association with three of the lawsuits contending the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision overstepped its authority in detaining the ex-inmates. They said the law clearly omits those who have completed their sentences or parole.

"A plain reading of ‘SARA’ makes clear that it applies only to people released to parole or ‘conditionally released,’ not those who have been released to PRS after completing their full prison terms," the defense groups wrote. "An irrefutable inference must be drawn that what is omitted or not included was intended to be omitted or excluded … Those individuals are not covered under SARA, because they were never ‘conditionally released;’ they served their full prison terms."

James’ office contends penal law requires the state Parole Board to "impose the same conditions on persons released to post-release supervision" as those released on parole or for good behavior.

Further, the attorney general’s brief said there is precedent for upholding the detention practice: "This Court has acknowledged on two occasions that ‘SARA’ applies to individuals on post-release supervision."

In addition, the prosecutor says the inmates didn’t preserve their legal rights to specifically challenge post-release conditions in each case.

The Court of Appeals typically takes four to six weeks to decide a case.

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