sex offender residency ordinance is not effective

I was at the De Pere City Council meeting tonight where the council members discussed the issue of restricting the residency of registered sex offenders. De Pere does not currently have such an ordinance. Instead we have a loitering ordinance that kicks in under certain related situations.

Green Bay, our neighbor to the north, has such an ordinance. And the Green Bay City Council has changed it and refined it and modified it so much, that there are now very small portions of the city remaining where registered sex offenders can live. So communities all around De Pere have such ordinances, which presents an interesting situation for us. There is concern, raised mostly by Alderperson Carl Castelic, that when the state is trying to find homes for sex offenders, they’ll just look to De Pere first, since we don’t have an ordinance and therefore it’s easier. And in doing so, De Pere becomes somewhat of a dumping ground for registered sex offenders.

Castelic’s concern is justified. But while we expend all this energy and discuss possible rules at length, we’re overlooking one major issue. And that is the simple question, “why?”

Why do we need a sex offender residence ordinance in the first place? What is the purpose? What exactly are we trying to accomplish?

The concern of most residents is simple, we don’t want our children in danger, and we don’t want these criminals to repeat their offenses in our community. So, how should we best handle this concern? Certainly not by asking the Green Bay City Council what to do. Why not ask someone who knows what they’re talking about?

The local expert, who appears at many city council meetings in this area, is Tom Smith, the Sex Offender Registry Specialist with the Wisconsin Dept of Corrections. I’ve been to a community notification meeting where he spoke and explained how the registry works. It’s very interesting to hear his perspective on how things work, who these offenders are, and what we can do to protect our communities.

Smith also spoke at tonight’s meeting, saying point blank that residency ordinances don’t work. The main thing we can do to help these offenders and prevent them from repeating, is to keep track of them, know where they are, and make sure they get the help they need. And not only does a residency ordinance not work, it makes the problem worse, it has the opposite effect. Since it makes it more difficult for offenders to find a home, it causes them to lie about where they are. This results in us losing touch with them and they don’t get the help they need.

Did you get that? A sex offender residency ordinance increases the chances of recidivism. So, why then? Why did Green Bay and other communities enact an ordinance? I don’t know. I do know that historically, the Green Bay City Council deems themselves experts on many issues; they do things without supporting research and facts.

Smith told us that he recently examined his records and found that there were 42 registered sex offenders in De Pere. Further review of each case revealed that 5 of those actually did not live here. They live somewhere else and simply provided a De Pere address to satisfy the registry requirements. This is the perfect example of 5 individuals who have gone “underground” so to speak. So we actually have 37 living here.

Tom Smith also spoke at the Green Bay Sex Offender Residence Board meeting on April 1, 2009. Here is an excerpt of the minutes of that meeting:

“…for those offenders under supervision, the recidivism rate is 1%.  The Department of Corrections study found that with regard to the recidivism rate for a sex offender convicted of an initial sexual assault and then convicted again of a sexual assault is:  for those offenders who have been off supervision for 3 years the rate is 3.8%; for those offenders who have been off supervision for 5 years the rate is 8.4%; for those offenders who have been off supervision for 11 years the rate is 11%. Tom Smith indicated that is actually very low compared to other states. Tom also indicated a Department of Justice study indicated that in 93% of cases, the victim knew the sex offender.  Out of that 93%, in 34.8% of the cases, the perpetrator was a family member, the other 58% are acquaintances, i.e. friends, people they knew, people they trusted, coaches, clergy, etc. To prevent that, education of the public is the key.”

“Tom reiterated that the studies have been done and the fact is that these types of ordinances do not work.  If there is data in existence that proves these types of ordinances work, Tom would strongly support them, but there is no such data.”

So, all I ask is why. To date, we don’t have such an ordinance in De Pere. I hope the residents of Green Bay are asking their expert city council members how effective their ordinance has been. Is it accomplishing what they set out to accomplish?

And here in De Pere, if an alderperson wants such an ordinance, all I ask is why. Like Alderperson Dan Robinson, I’ll be against it, but if you want it, just explain exactly what you expect to accomplish. You owe us at least that. Explain in detail the research and data that you’re using to form your opinion. Provide some measurable statistics. Then in a year or two we can look back and see if it worked.