County may get fewer predators under new state law

J. Blair WArdBy Steve Sharp:

JEFFERSON -- Jefferson County may have been abused over the years by state government, as violent sex offenders from other areas were placed here after serving their periods of prison incarceration.

Jefferson County Corporation Counsel J. Blair Ward told the Daily Times this week, however, those days may be over as a new state law takes effect.

"Sex offenders have been placed in Jefferson County for many years," Ward said. "The issue today results when the state of Wisconsin Department of Health Services places noncounty residents in Jefferson County because the state cannot find placement for a category of sex offenders designated as 'violent sex offenders' or '980 sex offenders' in the offenders' county of residence."

Ward said these offenders have served their court-ordered prison sentence, and following release from prison have been civilly committed to a treatment facility, usually Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, for an indeterminate period of time. After release from Sand Ridge, they are placed in the community.

Ward said sex offenders at issue are those who have committed a sexually violent offense, which has various definitions under state statute. They are also offenders who are convicted of being what the state calls a "serious child sex offender" under its statutes.

"An example of a sexually violent offense is sexual contact or sexual intercourse with another person without consent of that person which causes pregnancy or great bodily harm to that person, or sexual contact or sexual intercourse by use or threat of force or violence," Ward said. "If the treatment staff at Sand Ridge determines a patient is no longer a threat to the public, the court orders that the patient be released into the community."

Populated counties such as Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha have limited opportunities for placement due to the statutorily mandated restrictions on placing these types of offenders in the community. As a result, under the old law, the state of Wisconsin Department of Health Services places offenders in residential settings located in counties other than their county of residence."

Upon placement in the community, offenders wear a GPS ankle bracelet, are not allowed to go outside unless accompanied by a monitoring official and will receive random visits every day.

"They must follow many rules, including not having a cellphone, not driving and may not go near certain public places including libraries, schools, parks and other places where children or potential target victims may congregate," Ward said. "Officials will be electronically alerted if they do."

Ward explained how determinations are made on where offenders will be housed.
"The state of Wisconsin Department of Health Services attempts to find placement for the sex offender in the offender's county of residence. If unsuccessful, the state will seek a court order allowing placement in a different county," Ward said. "State law requires that placement is into a residence that is not less than 1,500 feet from any school premises, child care facility, public park, place of worship or youth center."

Offenders come to Jefferson County from more populated counties, such as Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha. Ward said Jefferson County has more placement options due to its rural character.

"I do not know if Jefferson County receives an inordinate number of out-of-county offenders compared to other rural counties, but it appears that way," he said.
On the other side of the coin, Ward said, Jefferson County does not place its sex offenders in other locales.

"Due to the placement options in Jefferson County, it would be unlikely for a court to find good cause to place a Jefferson County resident outside of Jefferson County under the old law," Ward said. "After the new law becomes fully implemented, Jefferson County, as well as all other counties in the state of Wisconsin, will not have the option to place offenders outside of their county of residence.

The new law, 2017 Wisconsin Act 184, requires that registered sex offenders be released on supervision in their county of residence. The former law allowed sex offenders to be placed outside of their county of residence if a circuit court judge found that there was good cause to search for placement options outside of their county of residence, such as there not being any placement options in their county of residence. Ward said this occurred with enough frequency and received enough negative publicity that the state legislature changed the law to require violent sex offenders to be placed only in their county of residence.

The new law became effective on March 30, 2018. However, the courts have held that if an offender had a pending petition filed before March 30, 2018, the new law does not apply. As a result, Ward said, courts are currently ordering placement outside of an offender's county of residence.

"Eventually the law will catch up with the petitions for supervised release and courts will no longer have the option to place violent sex offenders outside of their county of residence," he said.

The law, technically, can retroactively get sex offenders who have been placed here from other counties removed and relocated to their counties of origin.
"This is possible, but I am not aware of this occurring," Ward said.

In his recent annual report to the county board of supervisors, Ward implied the law, when it is fully realized, will be a very good thing for the county.

"Over the past year and one-half, five violent sex offenders who are not Jefferson County residents and have no connection with Jefferson County, have been placed in Jefferson County at the recommendation of the State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services," he said. "These placements were made by representing to circuit court judges from Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee that no placement options were available in the offenders' counties of residence. When the new law becomes fully implemented, Jefferson County and similarly situated rural counties will have the assurance that violent sex offenders from other counties will no longer be placed in their areas."

Ward's office has represented the citizens of Jefferson County by appearing in Racine County and Milwaukee County Circuit Courts objecting to the proposed placement of four violent sex offenders in Jefferson County who were not county residents. All of the judges denied Jefferson County's request to become a party to the case.

"As a result, I was not able to argue whether or not there was good cause for placement in Jefferson County. The placement determination was made without any input from Jefferson County. It was not until after the courts determined that placement would be in Jefferson County that Jefferson County was notified and offered the opportunity to provide input," he said.

Jefferson County has been informed by the state of Wisconsin Department of Health Services that there is another nonresident violent sex offender scheduled to be placed in Jefferson County within the next few months.

"I am optimistic that the new law will be fully implemented in the near future and this will be the last placement of a violent sex offender in Jefferson County who is not a Jefferson County resident," Ward said.