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Milwaukee Leaders Force Walker To Address Sex Offender Placement Policy

City has 89% of Milwaukee County’s sex offenders but few resources

Jun. 18, 2014
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Sex Offenders
A very public scolding by Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy has resulted in a letter from Gov. Scott Walker stating that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) would work with local leaders on concerns about the city’s disproportionate share of registered sex offenders.

Walker’s letter was sent hours after council members had taken testimony about the high proportion of county residents on the sex offender registry who live in the city, as well as safety and economic concerns. The committee had decided to postpone a vote on a resolution by Bay View Alderman Tony Zielinski that would prevent sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools, day care centers and other places where children congregate.

Murphy had invited the DOC’s Grace Roberts to the Thursday meeting. But just the night before, she informed him that she, as well as other sex offender experts at the DOC, would be at a conference that day. He told the committee he would have rescheduled if he’d had advance notice of her absence.

That was just one sign of the DOC’s reluctance to work with Milwaukee leaders on the issue.

Murphy had to file an open records request with the state to find out that 2,138, or 89%, of the county’s 2,399 registered sex offenders live in the city. He asked for historical data as well, but the DOC wouldn’t provide it. When Murphy asked to meet with the DOC to discuss potential statewide solutions to the patchwork of local ordinances restricting sex offender residency, he was told to call his local elected official. That’s when Murphy contacted Walker.

“I’ve heard nothing,” he told the Steering and Rules Committee Thursday.

Hours later, the letter arrived.

“There are some very serious issues that have to be addressed by the DOC,” Murphy told the Shepherd. “They have to come back with some solutions. We’d like to work with them to find a fair system so that Milwaukee doesn’t become the default location for all of the offenders.”

Default Concentration in Milwaukee

Murphy stressed that the city has been the only “responsible government” on this issue, since surrounding suburbs have adopted residency restrictions that essentially ban sex offenders from moving there. Just four Milwaukee County suburbs have not adopted restrictions—Hales Corners, River Hills, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, but Whitefish Bay is considering them. Bay Side and River Hills have no resident registered sex offenders at all.

Although the city is inching toward housing almost 100% of the county’s sex offenders, it has few resources to address the safety issues some of them present. Only four local DOC sex offender specialists are responsible for overseeing 1,900 offenders in Milwaukee County, and local law enforcement often receives delayed data from the DOC and it doesn’t have full access to the department’s database.

Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) Inspector Carianne Yerkes warned that residency restrictions would force sex offenders to go underground. They would either register at a fake address and live where they shouldn’t be living or they wouldn’t be able to find any housing and could become homeless. Both pose a greater danger than a functioning registry system, in which the locations of sex offenders are known to law enforcement and plotted on a publicly available map.

“With sex offenders, if you can’t keep track of them and you don’t know where they are living, it’s much more of a public safety concern than it is knowing where they are,” Yerkes testified.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said that the best solution would be a statewide one. He said the issue had “gone dark” since the mid-2000s, when the state had allocated $1.3 million for a residential treatment facility in Milwaukee. But that facility was never built because of concerns that Milwaukee would be home to a high concentration of sex offenders. What’s happened since then is what Chisholm called “default concentration,” with suburban zoning restrictions forcing sex offenders to locate in Milwaukee.

“The unintended consequence of that is you’re getting like I say, a displacement, a default concentration in Milwaukee and it’s not being rationally driven, it’s being driven essentially by market forces, by economics,” Chisholm testified.

Murphy noted that the reason why there are no sex offenders in River Hills is because the DOC can’t afford to buy them homes.

Is the Map Hurting Milwaukee?

Also up for discussion was the benefit of the state’s sex offender registry map. While the MPD’s Yerkes testified that it provides helpful information to law enforcement, neighbors and families, Alderman Bob Bauman said that he wanted to get rid of it altogether.

He said that a sizable number of those listed on the registry pose little harm to the community.

“But that’s not what the public thinks, and the public goes hysterical when they look at this map and find out they’re living in a nest of registered sex offenders,” Bauman said.

The sex offender registry includes a host of individuals who are unlikely to reoffend. For example, if two 17-year-olds are making out and end up having sexual intercourse, one of them could be charged as a predator and the other considered the victim. If convicted, the “predator” is listed on the state’s sex offender registry.

The cluster of registered sex offenders deters individuals from buying homes and investors from starting up businesses because of perceived safety risks, Bauman argued.

“Frankly, if this map goes dark as a result of this ordinance, I’m all for it, I’m all for it,” Bauman said. “This information is killing Milwaukee. This concentration of offenders within the city limits is doing great harm to our neighborhoods and it’s just plain not fair because the harmless sex offenders are still being prohibited in all of the other suburbs.”

Murphy told the Shepherd that he thought the map may deter some investment, but that he appreciated its transparency.

“People should know their surroundings,” Murphy said.


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