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Wisconsin Came Close To Changing A Rule That Often Leaves People On Sex Offense Registries Homeless

Republicans are leading an effort to get rid of blanket restrictions on where some people with sex-offense records can live. A Democratic governor is blocking them.

Chris McLoughlin/Getty Images

In May 2016, a local Fox station in Wisconsin reported a remarkable story. That March, a man who had served 11 years on second-degree child sexual assault had been released from prison. The city of Waukesha had a rule forbidding those convicted of a sex crime against someone under age 18 from living within 1,500 feet of schools, parks, and other places where children congregate. His mother and brothers all lived inside those banned zones, so he couldn’t live with them. 

With nowhere to go and homeless shelters refusing help, the day after his release he intentionally stood next to a school to get rearrested. That landed him back in prison for two years. “I just couldn’t go on with no place to go,” he told the station. (According to state records, after getting out in 2018, he’s now back in prison on another probation violation.) The Appeal contacted the state Department of Corrections to speak with him but, citing a “rigorous process” for making prisoners available for interviews, the agency didn’t respond before publication. 

The latest available research shows that 32 states and many municipalities, including dozens in Wisconsin, have rules like Waukesha’s that make big swaths of housing off limits to people with sex crime records. Those policies might sound like common sense, but a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that there’s “no empirical support for the effectiveness of residence restrictions.” Reformers and experts have tried for years to convince legislators that restrictions are bad policy, given the research and investigations linking them to higher rates of homelessness.

So it seemed odd to see Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, block Republican efforts to get rid of one such ban, at a time when Democratic candidates are out front on a range of criminal justice reforms.

Both legislative chambers unanimously supported Senate Bill 60, which four Republican state senators sponsored. It would have done away with the state’s rule forbidding those released from the state’s sex-offense civil commitment program from living within 1,500 feet of schools and other places. The civil commitment program confines about 280 people beyond their prison release dates for treatment, a program the state says is intended to lower their risk of recidivism.

Evers, who ran as a progressive, vetoed the bill in late November. He wrote that eliminating the distance restriction weakens protections that provide “as safe a place as we can for our kids to grow, learn, and play.”

But that argument about the bill takes as fact that those released from civil commitment are highly likely to recidivate, an assumption supported by little data. A paper by two law professors in the summer 2018 American Criminal Law Review concluded the opposite, describing three studies that found three- to five-year reconviction rates ranging from 3 to 7 percent.

The governor didn’t respond to a question from The Appeal about experts or evidence he consulted before concluding that residence restrictions protect children.

“The problem that we run into on any legislation related to [the state’s civil commitment program] is that it becomes very emotional very quickly,” says Adam Plotkin of the Wisconsin state public defender’s office. “And so reason tends to head out the door.”

That’s why successful challenges to residence bans mostly have been legal, not legislative. That includes Waukesha. In response to a federal lawsuit, in 2017 the city cut its distance ban to 750 feet. 

SB 60 was introduced by legislators who noticed residency restrictions in places like Milwaukee were pushing people who had been convicted of sex crimes into their rural districts.

Under a 2018 state law, those released from civil commitment must be returned to their home counties, and SB 60 is about maintaining that local control.

Senator Patrick Testin, a bill co-sponsor, told The Appeal that in his second day on the job, he went to a town hall meeting about an out-of-county detainee being released to a town in his district. “I walked into a room of about a hundred people who were very upset,” Testin said.

Plotkin hesitates to call SB 60 reform. While it would do away with the state rule, it doesn’t touch the municipal distance restrictions like Waukesha’s that affect many of the 25,000 or so people on the state’s sex-offense registry.  

But SB 60 does give reformers talking points for future efforts. In a statement to The Appeal, Senator Dan Feyen, another co-sponsor, called the 1,500-foot rule “arbitrary” and said it pushes those released from civil commitment into rural areas, making it more difficult for law enforcement to monitor them. Similarly, Testin told The Appeal that the rule was making it impossible to find suitable housing for released civil commitment detainees. 

And such is the momentum for SB 60 that legislators may challenge the governor’s veto. “We’re going to be very vocal in making the strong case that we should attempt the veto override,” Testin said.

A spokesperson for Feyen did not respond to a question about whether he would support repealing similar municipal restrictions in the state. Testin said he has “not had any conversations on that front.”

It’s not clear whether an actual sexual crime by a released Wisconsin detainee gave rise to the outrage in rural areas that fueled SB 60. Testin said he didn’t know of one and referred the question to the state Department of Corrections, which didn’t respond to a request for comment before publication.

What might an alternative to the 1,500-foot restriction look like? One expert says people convicted of sex crimes against minors should sometimes be restricted from places where children congregate. But those rules need to be individually tailored, says Eric Janus, who served on Minnesota’s Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force and founded the Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 

“If you’ve got a person whose MO was hanging out at playgrounds and that’s how they committed their crimes, then it would be understandable that they’ve got to stay away from playgrounds,” he says. “The issue is these blanket rules.”