HUDSON — Liz Rohl knows most people wouldn’t jump at the chance to have someone classified as “sexually violent” live in their area.
“The reality is, nobody really wants one of these offenders moving into their city, their county, their neighborhood,” she said.
On Jan. 25, the state of Wisconsin, through a vendor, closed on an Emerald home that will become the residence of Christopher Edward Mikulski, a man approved for supervised release. It is the only such property in St. Croix County.
In 2006, Mikulski pleaded guilty to first degree sexual assault of a child younger than 13, as well as two counts of forcing a child younger than 13 to view sexual conduct.
Until recently, the responsibility of finding housing for eligible convicted sex offenders fell to the state. A law change that went into effect March 30, 2018, gave this responsibility to individual counties.
The law also mandated the formation of temporary county committees, including St. Croix County’s 980 Committee, which is now responsible for finding housing for “sexually violent persons.”
Rohl, assistant corporation counsel for St. Croix County and chair of the 980 Committee, said the burden has shifted. Counties can be held liable monetarily if they fail to find suitable arrangements within 120 days.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is still in charge of leasing these residences and providing funding for the care and supervision of eligible offenders.
The state has the option of asking a court to commit an offender to Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center upon release. Sand Ridge, where Mikulski is currently housed, is a facility in Mauston that houses offenders found to have “a mental disorder that makes them more likely than not to engage in acts of sexual violence,” according to the DHS website.
The treatment center has an average monthly population of 330. Those housed there can petition for release every 12 months. If the court which committed the individual to the treatment center finds they are “no longer more likely than not to reoffend,” it can order either supervised release or discharge from Sand Ridge with no supervision.
“Supervised release” refers to the conditions under which a serious sex offender may rejoin a community after completing a prison sentence. The first year is “akin to house arrest,” DHS spokesperson Elizabeth Goodsitt said in an email.
Individuals in the program must follow more than 70 rules, which include restrictions on travel as well as approval of any visitors or contacts by the person’s “Community Reintegration Team,” or court-appointed supervisors.
Failure to follow any of these conditions may result in revocation of their release.
To be considered for this program, offenders must petition the Wisconsin court system. As of Feb. 28, there were 54 individuals spanning 40 properties in the state on supervised release.
The 980 Committee
St. Croix County’s version of the mandated temporary committee first met Sept. 11, 2018.
Its name, the “980 Committee,” refers to Wisconsin Statute chapter 980, which lays out guidelines under which some serious sex offenders may live in communities following a sentence.
Each county’s committee must consist of at least five members who fill specific roles within the committee.
The criteria for the housing search was primarily about location, Rohl said. Because Mikulski is considered a serious child sex offender, the residence sought out by the county could not share a property line with a minor’s primary residence.
It also had to be wheelchair accessible, or have the potential for renovations that wouldn’t be unreasonably expensive.
In every case of supervised release, the property must be at least 1,500 feet from any school, child care facility, public park, place of worship or youth center. If the victim or victims of the person have been elderly or vulnerable adults, the property must also be more than 1,500 feet from any nursing home or assisted living facility.
The residence is in a rural area of the county and only one residence currently exists on the four surrounding properties, according to a report submitted by Rohl to the Polk County Circuit Court, which originally handled Mikulski’s criminal case. The St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office visited that residence and determined no children were living there.
Now that a residence has been found, the courts have instructed DHS to prepare a release plan for Mikulski due no later than March 25.
Before his release, the state will send out a notification to law enforcement and the Department of Corrections. The three agencies will then meet to finalize a release date and decide when community notification will occur. This may be either before or after Mikulski is released to live in the community, Rohl said.
Why the change in legislation?
Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) and nine other representatives introduced Assembly Bill 539 in the Wisconsin House in October 2017. The bill included Wisconsin Act 184, which would make changes to Wisconsin Statute 980. It was cosponsored by five senators.
“We wanted to make sure that we were putting some of the decision-making back into each of the counties that an offender would have originated from,” Krug said. “The main problem was that we had judges from outside of every county making placements in counties that they didn’t represent or didn’t live in.”
The lawmakers felt it would be more appropriate for individual counties to contend with offenders who originated within their counties, Krug said.
“They’ll (the committee) know where to place somebody, they’ll know where not to place somebody,” Krug said.
Goodsitt said legislation that existed prior to Act 184, which made DHS responsible for finding properties, sometimes allowed people on supervised release to slip through the cracks.
“In some cases, an appropriate location could not be found within the time constraints,” Goodsitt said. “In these cases, the court could order the client be directly discharged (in which they are free to live where they choose with no supervision), or the court had ordered DHS to look in other counties or statewide for a residence that allows for a supervised placement.”
Goodsitt called the 980 committees and supervised release program “safeguards to the community.” She cited “tens of thousands of convicted sex offenders living across the state” versus 54 people on supervised release who are monitored by DHS. The department’s website cites more than 25,000 such offenders living unsupervised in the state.
Since the supervised release program began in 1994, 175 individuals in Wisconsin have rejoined communities under supervised release. Three of those people reoffended during supervision, according to the state.
St. Croix County’s 980 Committee includes:
Liz Rohl, Assistant Corporation Counsel, who serves as committee chair
Steve Kirt, Behavioral Health Administrator, who serves as committee vice chair
Mark Lemke, Division of Correction Supervisor
Brett Budrow, Community Development Planning and Land Administrator
Mick Chase, Supervised Release Specialist with the state of Wisconsin