The Ladysmith Common Council adopted new stricter limits on where registered sex offenders may live in the city, after scaling back the proposal following concerns raised by the municipal court judge about excessive fines for violators.
The council voted 6-0, at its Sept. 14 meeting, to approve the proposal from Police Chief Kevin Julien, who last month expressed concern Ladysmith has almost as many registered sex offender residents as Rice Lake, a city nearly three times larger.
Julien told a city council committee recently Ladysmith has 39 sex offenders compared with 40 in Rice Lake.
The city currently doesn’t have ordinances addressing sex offender residency.
The new ordinance applies to any person required to register as a sex offender for any offense against a child or person who requires public notice through a Special Bulletin Notification, a type of public notification reserved for high risk sex offenders. It would establish strict residency restrictions on sex offenders, banning them from living within 500 feet of any school for children, licensed day care center, public park, public library, public playground, recreational trail, any facility for children or any other place where children are known to congregate.
The action came after a public hearing, during which Municipal Court Judge Terry Carter questioned fines that he called “over the top” and possibly not collectible.
“I have no issue with the ordinance as it is written. My only issue is with the fine amounts,” Carter said. “I think they are over the top to the point they are uncollectible through municipal court because they are too high. I think you got a little carried away with the fine amounts.”
The ordinance included two sets of restrictions, one on residency and one on loitering.
An offender may not reside within 500 feet of any school for children, licensed daycare, public park, public library, public playground, recreational trail, any facility for children or any other place where children are known to congregate. There are exceptions if the person was living at a residence prior to the new ordinance being adopted, less than 17 years old and not required to register, the venue opened after the person’s residence was established or the residence is the primary home of the person’s spouse, parents, grandparents, siblings or children provided the home was established at least one year before the designated offender established residence at the location. A violator shall be fined not less than $1,000 or no more than $2,500 for each violation. Each day a violation continues shall constitute a separate offense.
An offender also may not loiter or prowl in the specified locations in a place, at a time, or a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals under circumstances that warrant alarm for the safety of persons or property in the vicinity. There is an exception if the person is accompanied by a parent, guardian or other adult person having care, custody or control, or where that person was exercising First Amendment rights protected by the U.S. Constitution or Wisconsin Constitution, including freedom of speech, the free exercise of religion, or the right of assembly. Violators shall be fined no less than $500, nor more than $5,000.
Carter recommended residency fines from $200 to $500 instead of the proposed $1,000 to $2,500 per offense. With court costs his recommended penalties would range from about $313 to $691.
Carter also recommended loitering fines from $250 to $750 instead of the proposed $500 to $5,000 per offense. With court costs his recommended penalties would total from about $376 to $1,005.
“The amounts you have in this ordinance, once you add the court costs, I can only put people in jail so many days, and that is over the limit,” Carter said. “A person gets a ticket at that price who is on any sort of government assistance will just sit there. They will never pay it.”
The council amended the proposal to include the lower fines proposed by Carter.
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections sex offender registry was established in June 1997. The registry generally contains information on those individuals who were convicted of, incarcerated or on supervision for a sex offense on or after Dec. 25, 1993.
A registered sex offender is a person who has been convicted of a felony sexual offense and is required to register with state and local police. Actively supervised sex offenders have not completed their term of probation or parole and are assigned to state probation and parole field agents. An unsupervised sex offender has been released from supervision after completing a term ordered by the court, including offenders who were found guilty of sexual related crimes prior to Dec. 25, 1993. A Special Bulletin Notification is a type of public notification reserved for high risk sex offenders in which the public is notified in different manners depending on the level of SBN decided by a team of law enforcement, prosecutors, probation and parole officials.
When offenders are released from prison, they usually return to live in the same area where they lived when they committed their crime. For many offenders, this is also the county where they were convicted. Sometimes offenders are released to another area because they have family support there, or there is treatment available there that is not available elsewhere, or they have found a job in the area that will lead to a productive lifestyle. For offenders on supervision, decisions about residency are made on a case-by-case basis.
The state Department of Corrections rents a home in the city at 402 W. Fritz Ave. for use as Transitional Living Program temporary housing for sex offenders released from prison. It is within the ordinances protected area due to its proximity to the Rusk County Community Library. Under the 500 foot limit now in the city’s ordinance, the state will not be allowed to use this home as a TLP for sex offender.
City officials have backed the proposal, but have raised questions about constitutionality and ability to withstand a lawsuit on grounds that it might be too restrictive on residency. Municipalities may limit where sex offenders live, but may not take action that excludes their residency entirely. Last month, a city council committee recommended lowering the sex offender residency restriction from 1,000 feet to 500 feet from places where children congregate.
A federal court judge in 2017 determined a sex offender ordinance in the Kenosha County village of Pleasant Prairie violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by essentially banishing offenders from the town. Pleasant Prairie’s ordinance barred sex offenders from living in 90 percent of the town, and the allowed area was mostly non-residential. Dozens of Wisconsin municipalities expanded the areas where convicted sex offenders are allowed to live after the Pleasant Prairie case including the cities of Milwaukee, Waukesha and Brookfield. The city of Brookfield repealed and recreated its ordinance last year to allow sex offenders to live in 24 percent of the city after previously only allowing offenders to live in 7.5 percent of the city.
The ordinance doesn’t affect most members of the general public, according to Ald. Marty Reynolds. “We are talking about sex offenders in Ladysmith, and we are getting more than our fair share of them,” he said.
“I think the penalty is more of a deterrent than it is we are expecting to get anyone paying it,” Reynolds said. “The concept is we are stuck with this [offender] and now if he is going to cause any kind of problem at all we can throw him in jail and let him sit there until he can pay it or until someone gets him out.”
The concept is to have an ordinance under which violators can be charged, according to Reynolds.
“The concept behind the majority of this is we are getting people from Minnesota. We are getting people from Milwaukee. We are getting people who are not residents. They are putting them in here. This is part of an ordinance we do not have,” Reynolds said. “It is possible we went overboard. I am not sure I have a concern, but there has to be some type of deterrent there.”
Julien modeled the ordinance and fine structure after similar ordinances in Rice Lake and Minocqua, and did not object to the judge’s recommendation for lower fines. He said he does not expect to have to write a ticket under the ordinance.
“In a nutshell this ordinance is going to be a great thing for this community whether the bond amount is there or not,” Julien said. “We still need to make it reasonable if we do end up having to issue a citation and if we do have to hold somebody accountable. We can do municipal court as long as it is reasonable and not over the excessive amount that we can’t incarcerate them.”
Reynolds didn’t think the original proposed fines were excessive considering the issue.
“But it might give the state an easier shot at coming in and attacking the ordinance,” Reynolds said.
Julien told the city council the new ordinance could result in sex offenders being homeless upon release if the state does not have a home to place them.
“Unfortunately we won’t know until we find out,” Julien said. “The pros of the ordinance are definitely going to outweigh any of the cons.”