Walworth County is forming a new committee that will be responsible for identifying local housing options for recently released violent sexual offenders—but the task could prove difficult.
The committee is forming after the passage of Wisconsin Act 184 in 2017. The law requires offenders be placed in their home county under supervision after being released from incarceration. Counties must also establish housing committees that identify prospective residential options for the offender.
The Walworth County Board voted Oct. 9 to form the committee. According to Act 184, the committee must be comprised of representatives from the county’s human services department, its corporation counsel, its zoning agency, the state Department of Health Services, and a local probation or parole officer.
An offender’s home county is where they would have received Social Security or displayed a “voluntary concurrence of physical presence with intent to remain in a place of fixed habitation” when the crimes were committed, according to a memo from the Wisconsin Legislative Council.
A sexually violent person is classified as having been convicted of first-, second- or third-degree sexual assault; incest with a child; child enticement; sexual assault of a child placed in substitute care; or other crimes determined to have been “sexually motivated,” according to state statute.
Among the committee’s tasks is submitting a report to the Department of Health Services indicating a landlord has committed to a lease with the offender. That report is then paired with the state’s supervised release plan and forwarded to the offender’s committing court. The committee will have 180 days to complete a report after being notified of an offender’s release. That deadline will shorten to 120 days after April 2019.
Michael Cotter, director of the county’s land use and resource management agency, will sit on the committee after the county board appoints members Nov. 5. He said between three and five violent sex offenders could be released in Walworth County within the next five years.
Cotter said the committee will face several hurdles in coming up with housing options. He said the county is producing a map showing all locations within 1,500 feet of schools, child care facilities, parks, places of worship and youth centers—areas where sex offenders cannot live under state law.
Establishing those boundaries is challenging, he said. Locating schools and traditional churches is the easy part; defining “youth centers” and “places of worship” is more difficult, and those definitions will dictate where sex offenders can live.
Municipal ordinances might also complicate the process, Cotter said. Municipalities can extend the legal distance a sex offender may live from certain places, he said. But state law supersedes local law, so an offender could be placed in a home where a municipality would otherwise prohibit it.
“That’s going to be frustrating for folks,” Cotter said. “These are always difficult issues when people like this are released. It’s always fine until it’s my neighbor or the guy that’s 2 miles down the county road.”
Cotter said many places will be off limits for offenders given the 1,500-foot boundary around certain places, particularly in cities. Tracking down willing landlords will also be difficult and likely “tremendously expensive,” he said.
According to the statute, an offender is responsible for paying for his or her housing when able. When an offender can’t pay, the Department of Health Services will provide assistance. The state doesn’t limit what a landlord can charge, so landlords could raise rent to house an offender and the state would foot the bill.
Walworth County will have the committee abide by open meetings laws, which the new law does not require. Cotter said having the meetings open will give the community a window into the process and an opportunity to weigh in on decisions.
“I want people to be able to hear what’s going on, and they should be able to come,” Cotter said.