Wisconsin struggles to find new homes for sex offenders

By Cara Lombrado, Associated Press 

MADISON (AP) — Thirty-six violent sex offenders who have completed treatment are still waiting in prison for Wisconsin officials to find them somewhere to live, an Associated Press review of state data reveals.

Wisconsin policymakers, like those in many states, have struggled for years to find homes for sex offenders in the face of opposition from local communities and legal restrictions on where they can live. It’s a process that takes months and sometimes years.

State lawmakers have proposed a new approach that would give local communities more of a voice in placement decisions while doing away with limitations on how close offenders can live to schools, parks and day care centers.

“It’s just this continuing problem of ‘We can’t find a place, we can’t find a place,’” said state Rep. Mark Born, a Republican who came forward with the bipartisan proposal. “This program is successful if it can work through all of its stages. But right now there are problems finding placeme for supervised release.”Communities resist housing the high-profile sexually violent offenders, a small subset of the state’s more than 23,000 registered sex offenders. They are legally subject to indefinite surveillance.

The idea is that offenders are closely monitored after being released from the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston — even accompanied to their jobs and other activities outside of the house — until they can prove they’re unlikely to commit a crime again.

A state law passed last year requires people in this group to live at least 1,500 feet away from schools, churches, day cares and parks.

Those restrictions push them into less populated areas, angering locals who say their neighborhoods have become dumping grounds. Landlords have also reported being harassed for renting homes to the sex offenders and, in one extreme case, a home in a Madison suburb was lit on fire before a man who had sexually assaulted children could move in as planned.

Last month, Born, Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland and other members of the Legislature’s budget committee approved a plan that would do away with the restrictions on how close sex offenders could be to schools and other sites and instead require them to be placed in the counties in which they committed their crimes. A judge would still control the final decision.

Born said the plan would return control to local communities, which district attorneys and law enforcement officers have pushed for, by requiring county officials to work with the state to find suitable places based on their knowledge of their own county.

The plan would still need the Legislature’s approval, and some lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch, have slightly different ideas. Kleefisch said he’s working on a “return-to-sender” proposal that, while requiring offenders to return to where they came from, would likely keep some of the distance limitations.

According to the Department of Health Services, of the 50 sexually violent offenders monitored by the state, only 15 live in counties other than the ones where they committed their crimes.

Of the 160 people who have been released in the program’s history, only three have committed another crime. DHS spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said that in each case, the victims knew their perpetrators.

Born and others point to that remarkably low recidivism rate as evidence that the program works, if the state can figure out a way to deal with the backlog of housing searches.

That’s little comfort to Tomah resident Matthew Steele, who said his wife doesn’t feel comfortable going for walks now that there are two violent sex offenders living in a house on their quiet country road. Steele and his wife have a 1-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.

“We get these guys from all corners of the state that come to live on my dead-end road,” he said. Both men ended up on his street after officials couldn’t find suitable housing in their original counties.

One of the men, Randy Poff, raped a female jogger in 1990 and later chased another jogger while sexually gratifying himself.

According to Steele, DHS employee Scott Timm, who searches for places to house offenders, said at a public meeting before Poff moved in that the state had looked at 100 possible houses in La Crosse County, where he lived when he was arrested, but that none were suitable.

“You can’t tell me there’s not one place in that county that fits the bill,” Steele said. Timm didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Miller said the state can consider as many as 100 places before finding one that works.

Todd Terry, an attorney for the town of Wheatland in Kenosha County, said placing offenders requires an intensive review of their tendencies and a familiarity with their new surroundings.

“While certainly nobody wants a sex offender in their backyard,” he said, “the general public could understand it more if it’s someone known to the community.”