Wis. proposal would severely limit where sex offenders can live

Would require incoming sex offenders to live at least 2,500 feet, or about half a mile, from facilities for children

By Andrea Anderson
The Janesville Gazette

ELKHORN, Wis. — An ordinance being considered by the Elkhorn City Council would restrict incoming sex offenders to living in pockets within the city, according to a Gazette analysis.

In September, the city council voted 4-3 in favor of drafting the ordinance, which would require incoming sex offenders to live at least 2,500 feet, or about half a mile, from facilities for children. More than a dozen facilities including schools, parks and licensed and certified daycare centers are listed.

Juveniles with legal guardians and offenders who lived at homes within the limits at the time of their crimes would be exempt. Offenders living within the 2,500-feet limit now would be grandfathered in.

The heated discussion at the September meeting extended outside council chambers.

Travis Schwantes, Walworth County public defender, opposes the ordinance based on research he's read and conferences on sex offenders he's attended.

Ordinances such as this one lead to a devastating cycle of behavior and make the community less safe, Schwantes said.

“When you create another barrier to people who have served their time getting out, (like) not being able to find a place to live, you're making us less safe,” Schwantes said. “You're increasing the strain on public resources. There ends up being sex offender ghettos where you have an enormous concentration of sex offenders, and research shows that isn't an ideal thing, either.”

Offenders' emotional and physical stability waiver when their living options are severely restricted, and such limits can result in homelessness, said Michael Caldwell, president of the Wisconsin Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and a psychiatrist for juvenile delinquents charged with sexual crimes.

East Troy's restriction of 1,500 feet from facilities for children hasn't resulted in homelessness, said Joel Christensen, Elkhorn's police chief.

Research on whether displacing offenders increases recidivism is not abundant, Caldwell said. He cautioned that when criminals have housing issues or difficulty getting to treatment, recidivism can increase.

“It certainly seems to produce more homelessness in this population, and we would expect that would translate into criminal recidivism -- either sexual recidivism or other kinds of criminal behaviors,” Caldwell said.

Brian Olson, Elkhorn's mayor and an ordinance proponent, said conversations with judges and other community representatives with similar ordinances have shown that recidivism doesn't increase and homelessness isn't a problem.

About 30 states in the United States and thousands of municipalities have adopted ordinances restricting where offenders live, according to a 2009 Colorado Department of Public Safety study.

Most ordinances have restrictions of between 1,000 and 2,500 feet from facilities for children, according to a 2008 Minnesota Department of Corrections study.

Olson brought up the ordinance a few years ago because of what he called a volume issue and citizen concerns.

Elkhorn has the majority of the county's 265 registered sex offenders. It has 60, or six per 1,000 residents. The city of Delavan follows with 39 registered offenders or 4.6 offenders per 1,000 residents.

Adopting the ordinance is a way to limit the number of offenders and make concerned people feel safe, Alderman Jim D'Alessandro said.

“The perception of the area is that we're a dumping ground and that the other communities are not sharing in the burden of having to house sex offenders,” D'Alessandro said.

Restricting incoming offenders doesn't address the population living in the city, said Scott McClory, an alderman and Walworth County Sheriff's Office employee.

“If you want them to be safe, I'm all for that,” McClory said. “If we want to keep them 500 feet or 1,000 feet from a school, a daycare, a church, fine. But when you make it 2,500 linear feet in any direction, that's the entire city of Elkhorn, damn near, so really what you're talking is eradication, not community protection.”

He also said adopting the ordinance is against the police chief's and state Department of Corrections' suggestions.

The Department of Corrections did not state if it was for or against such ordinances.

“The Department of Corrections operates the same in communities with ordinances as it does in communities without ordinances,” the department said in a statement. “We help ensure public safety by maintaining the Sex Offender Registry website and collaborating with local law enforcement. Offenders are responsible for locating their own housing. Agents will remain cognizant of the residency restriction ordinance, discuss the restrictions with registrants under DOC supervision, and direct them to comply with the ordinance.”

Public safety is Christensen's number one concern. He said the ordinance isn't the best choice based on information he has gathered and read.

Offenders living in Elkhorn have a zero recidivism rate for committing another sex offense, Christensen said. That does not mean offenders did not commit other crimes or fail to report some piece of information, he said.

He suggested focusing on finding people who are “grooming” others for sex offenses and educating the public on who offenders are rather than on the myth that they're “the guy who jumps out of a bush.”

“I would go back to what research showed would suggest these restrictions or these ordinances have not improved public safety, and I don't want anyone to get a false sense of security just because of it,” Christensen said.

Police verify offender registry information at least twice a year. Also, offenders meet with parole and probation officers in Elkhorn on an appointment basis and follow other requirements and restrictions.

Offenders are unlikely to re-offend within the areas restricted by ordinances because they are more likely to be recognized in their neighborhoods, according to the Minnesota study.

When offenders seek victims, they're more likely to go to an area “relatively close to home (i.e. less than 20 miles) but still far enough away (i.e. greater than 1 mile) to decrease the chances of being recognized,” the study states.

Offenders are more likely to victimize people they know, such as a family member or child of a woman or man they are dating or living with.

There is no correlation between the number of offenders living in a neighborhood and the number of offenses in that area, Caldwell said.

Like Christensen, Caldwell suggests public education, no ordinance and easier access for therapy, group meetings, probation and parole offices and resources for offenders.

McClory suggested implementing a cap on the number of offenders allowed to live within the city or working with the Department of Corrections to reduce the number of offenders over the coming years.

Dan Necci, Walworth County district attorney, lives in Elkhorn and is a father of three.

He's spoken with people involved with city council and law enforcement about the ordinance. He said the question of where sex offenders can and should live is polarizing, and the city's decision will have repercussions on nearby communities.

“I'm right there with the folks who say, 'Well, don't put them next to me,'” Necci said. “There are no easy answers here, and it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that there is a vigorous debate over this ordinance.”

If the idea that offenders go off the grid and don't report in is true, the district attorney's office would have fewer violation referrals and less work related to released sex offenders, Necci said.

The three sheriff's office deputies who monitor sex offenders outside Elkhorn would see an increase in work because incoming offenders wouldn't be allowed to live in the city, McClory said.

The city council will discuss and possibly vote on the ordinance at its 5 p.m. meeting Monday at the Elkhorn City Hall, 9 S. Broad St.

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