New Wisconsin law keeps sexually violent offenders close to home

By Karen Madden, USA TODAY NETWORK, for the Stevens Point Journal

MADISON - A new state law will require sexually violent people to live in their home counties. It comes in response to a series of controversies after judges ordered sex offenders to be housed in communities with no connection to them.

Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday signed into law the bill authored by state Rep. Scott Krug, R-Rome, and Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.

During the past two years, the Portage County town of Alban has been the site of placements for sexually violent offenders from Washington and Chippewa counties. Under the new law, those sexually violent people will instead be placed in their home counties.

The law also would have eliminated a requirement created in 2016 that forces sexually violent people to live at least 1,500 feet away from places like schools, parks and nursing homes, where children and the elderly are likely to be, a measure its authors said was needed to ensure placements are possible in the offender's home county. However, Walker vetoed this part of the bill.

Wisconsin's sexually violent persons law, known as Chapter 980, creates a process where a circuit court judge can declare someone a sexually violent person. Once that declaration occurs, the person is placed into a treatment facility for an indefinite amount of time.

When a judge decides a person declared to be sexually violent meets the criteria for release, the person is placed into his or her home county. In March 1, 2016, Walker signed Wisconsin Act 156, which created the minimum distance residency requirements that were difficult for some urban counties to meet.

In a statement released Wednesday, Walker said he vetoed the change to protect vulnerable populations.

Requiring officials to place sexually violent people in their home counties without eliminating the restrictions could endanger the state's sexually violent person law, Shankland said.

The law will create an independent committee for each county that will determine the appropriate locations for placing sexual violent people, but the committee will have to abide by the distance requirements, Shankland said. In Portage County, for example, Sheriff Mike Lukas's proposed location for sexually violent people would be near the Portage County Jail, which a county committee likely would have approved. The distance requirements won't allow that, she said.

If a county cannot make a legal placement, Shankland said, an offender's release may be delayed, which could place Wisconsin's sexually violent person program in legal jeopardy if the designation is found to be unconstitutionally detaining people indefinitely.

Krug, an author of the law, said he does not believe those fears are justified, and called the signing a step forward even with the veto. The Legislature can work with the governor's office in the next legislative session on a bill that would change distance requirements, Krug said.

The new law does not apply to offenders for whom courts have already made placements.