Sheriff: Portage County becomes 'dumping grounds' for sex offenders

By Alan Hovorka, Stevens Point Journal

STEVENS POINT - Portage County Sheriff Mike Lukas issued a strong rebuke of an out-of-county judge's decision to place a sexually violent offender in the town of Lanark. 

"I am utterly disgusted with what's going on here in the state. This is unbelievable that Portage County has become the dumping grounds for sexually violent persons," Lukas said in an interview with USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, days before a public meeting to discuss the release of Ronald A. Stewart. 

The sheriff, in the interview, accused state officials and judges of ignoring his reports about the fitness and safety of the placement homes for sexually violent offenders in Portage County.

Last week, the Portage County Sheriff's Office announced a public meeting scheduled at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Lanark Town Hall, 7174 County Road TT, regarding Stewart's release.

Stewart, 62, was convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 6 and 9,in 1982 and attempted sexual assault of a female acquaintance in 1990, according to a news release. He's currently housed in a supervised facility in Mauston and will be released to live in the area near Boelter Lake in Lanark. A Dane County judge approved his projected March 15 release on Feb. 13.

Stewart did not live in Portage County during either of his offenses. Both occurred in Dane County. 

The area where Stewart will be released is laden with trees and residential plots. A number of children-at-play signs dot the long road leading to where Stewart will be housed.

Amy Behnke, a 35-year-old resident of the Lanark neighborhood where Stewart will live, called it a country neighborhood filled with vacation cabins and full-time residences. 

"This was slipped under the radar without any consent," said Behnke, who home-schools her children. "It's not fair that someone in another county can make these decisions for us."

Lukas criticized the system as lacking transparency because the public and county officials don't receive notice of release hearings. The only public notice people get is after the fact, he said.

Portage County judges refused to place local sexually violent offenders in some of the same homes the out-of-county judges determined were safe for non-local offenders, Lukas said.

"I have no idea how they figured that (those areas) are fit for their out-of-county residents except for the fact that they do not know the area and they’re not reading the reports," the sheriff said. 

He added that the state Department of Health Services has asked him to conduct investigations for housing for three additional out-of-county offenders, with one site in Alban and two in Lanark. 

Lukas also expressed concern about his office's ability to respond to any issues caused by an offender in a timely manner, saying it could take more than 20 minutes for a deputy to reach the neighborhood.

A 2016 state law requires sexually violent offenders to live more than 1,500 feet from schools, churches and other community areas where children frequent.

State Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point previously co-authored legislation that would push for more local control on the placement of sex offenders. Shankland, a Democrat, criticized Republican Gov. Scott Walker for vetoing a budget provision last year that would have required such offenders be placed in their home counties.  

"I’m extremely frustrated and sorry that Sexually Violent Persons (SVPs) keep getting shipped to Portage County," Shankland wrote on her Facebook page after the news of Stewart's pending release. "For over a year, I’ve been doing everything I can to stop this."

A spokeswoman from the Department of Health Services, which finds housing for sexually violent offenders after they’re granted release, said the state has no choice but to find community placement for people who have completed their treatment and rehabilitation.

Although it's a "challenging task" to find a safe place for those offenders to live, the state works with local police and others and complies with the law, said Jennifer Miller, a communications specialist for the agency.

In an email to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, Miller also noted that sexually violent offenders are supervised, which "is safer for the community than direct discharge of a patient without any supervision at all."

"The first year of Supervised Release is akin to house arrest and the client receives more privileges only if they demonstrate the willingness to follow Supervised Release rules," she wrote.

A team of state officials supervise and monitor each of the released offenders, Miller said.