Officials in two Rock County towns want more control over where sex offenders live, but a national organization said such restrictions hinder offender rehabilitation.
The town of Johnstown and the town of Harmony have drafted ordinances regarding sex offenders.
“Those people have to stay someplace, but it would just be nice if we could have a little more control,” Harmony Town Board President Jeff Klenz said.
Sandy Rozek, who works with the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws, said ordinances such as the ones proposed in Harmony and Johnstown hamper the rehabilitation of offenders. She said stability is an important part of keeping offenders from re-offending.
“The factors that are associated with successful rehabilitation for anyone coming out of prison—or a situation like that—are a place to live, security in living, access to employment and other services and family support; and residency restrictions tend to impede all of these things,” Rozek said.
Rozek’s organization works to eliminate discrimination, banishment and vigilantism against people accused or convicted of sexual offenses.
Many sex offender cases, Rozek said, involve older teen boys in relationships with underage teen girls, which is much different than the stereotype of an older male preying on children or women. Most people on the sex offender registry she has encountered are repentant, and recidivism rates are very low for most sex offenses, she said.
The conversation about creating ordinances began in the town of Harmony after town leaders learned multiple sex offenders were living in the former Pine Tree Inn at 4544 W. Highway 14, Janesville.
The facility is run by the Jessie Crawford Recovery Center, a recovery center for people with mental health and substance abuse issues.
Klenz said the current use of the facility violates the property’s original conditional-use permit, which allows the building to be run as a motel but not a recovery center.
Under the proposed town of Harmony ordinance, registered sex offenders would be prohibited from living within 1,500 feet of schools, public parks, licensed day cares, libraries, playgrounds, pools, churches and other areas frequented by children.
While state statutes restrict the residency of only a narrow category of sex offenders—those found by the courts to be sexually violent offenders—the ordinance would apply to all registered sex offenders, a much larger group.
As of Jan. 7, Wisconsin had 63 sexually violent offenders living in communities on supervised release. That’s compared to more than 250,000 registered sex offenders living in Wisconsin.
Klenz told The Gazette in December he believes in rehabilitating sex offenders, but he wants the town where offenders are to be placed to have more say.
The ordinance being considered by the Johnstown Town Board is identical to the town of Harmoy proposal, but it would be more restrictive in one way. It would bar the placement of registered sex offenders anywhere in the town unless they were town residents when they committed their crimes.
Multiple Johnstown residents voiced concerns at a meeting earlier this month about the pending placement of John M. Schaefer, 45, whom the courts have judged to be a sexually violent person based on a pair of sex crimes in 1991 and 1992. No date has been set for his placement.
Residents asked about ways to delay or move his placement, but Oellerich said they likely wouldn’t hold up in court if challenged.
Oellerich said the ordinances would give the towns another tool to protect residents.
“Offenders could be classified as a sex offender under our ordinance, but they may not be a sexually violent offender under the state statute,” he said. “These ordinances could potentially apply to more offenders.”
Rozek said offenders who will not or cannot alter their behavior need to be monitored, but not all offenders are like that.
“People need to apply common sense to the situation. Sexually molesting someone is already against the law. If someone is determined to do that … are they going to stop because there’s another law that says you can’t cross this 1,500-foot line? It doesn’t make any sense,” Rozek said.
Statistics show most sex offenses involve people the victims know personally, so ordinances pointed at strangers might not be effective, Rozek said.
“Virtually all sexual crimes are committed against people that are in the circle of trust with the offender. Once they are made to accept responsibility for what they’ve done and it’s out in the open … for the most part they are ashamed, they are sickened,” she said.
Locals said they would rather be safe than sorry.
Klenz said he has received numerous complaints from residents about the Pine Tree Inn, including a grandfather whose 17-year-old granddaughter took her own life one month after being gang-raped in Dane County in 2016.
Klenz hopes the ordinance will prevent similar incidents in the town and allow the town to protect children.
“This is the type of stuff that I’m very concerned about,” he said. “We have these sexual offenders, and it appears to me that the state hasn’t given us much of an opportunity to place these people.
“We all know that they have to have a place to live … but that’s why we’re going after this type of thing,” he said.