State News

DOC seeks media coverage of home visits to registered sex offenders’ on Halloween

Wisconsin law mandates registered sexual offenders are not allowed to decorate their homes or light their porches on Halloween despite a decrease in sexual crimes during the popular children’s holiday. 

Wisconsin law mandates registered sexual offenders are not allowed to decorate their homes or light their porches on Halloween despite a decrease in sexual crimes during the popular children’s holiday. 

Image By: Julia Mendelsohn

“Would you normally let your six-year old walk outside by themselves in the dark?” Wisconsin Department of Corrections Sex Offender Registration Program Director Grace Knutson asked. “No, so let’s use this as an opportunity. When we can all as adults keep kids safe, that lessens the opportunity of a sex offender having an opportunity to reoffend.” 

Knutson acknowledged there is no other time of year children are out in the streets at night, often alone, going to strangers’ houses asking for candy. To mitigate potential threats, the DOC increases their street presence on Halloween, and ensures the lack of presence of formerly incarcerated sexual offenders. 

However, there is not an increase in sexual crimes on Halloween. In fact, Knutson said they decrease, while crimes like pedestrian-involved car accidents are more prevalent.

“A majority of the time there are very few sex offenses that happen as a result of trick-or-treating or as a result of Halloween,” Knutson said. 

Despite this, registered offenders on community supervision across the state must abide by a set of rules inhibiting them from participating in trick-or-treating activities. They are mandated to turn their porch lights off, have no decorations or candy both inside or outside the house, as well as not wear costumes. 

In addition to the restrictions, the DOC conducts home visits along with local law enforcement and parole agents to ensure the parolees’ are following protocol. Last Halloween, more than 2,200 visits occurred with 43 sex offenders taken into custody for violating supervision requirements. 

“There are 31 offenses that require registration, we do not differentiate between somebody who has a hands-on offense versus a hands-off offense,” Knutson said. “If the statute says they are required to register, they are required and that is what we are driven by.” 

Despite the wide-range of offenses one can be added to the registry for, the DOC determines which offenders to visit based on their proximity to other offenders and high density trick-or-treating zones — not their original crime.

Halloween is the only time the state agency administers this concentrated level of home visits, which have been mandated for the last 10 years.

This year, the DOC invited media outlets to participate on the trick-or-treat walk-alongs with agents. 

Deputy Communications Director for the DOC Clare Hendricks believes this is an opportunity for members of the media to see law enforcement operations firsthand and subsequently generate awareness about safety precautions to the public. 

“There can be a lot of anxiety around Halloween because you do not know who is out there and sometimes people might be so-to-speak afraid or worried, but reminding folks that our probation and parole agents are out there and what we do on a regular basis –– let alone on Halloween –– can be reassuring,” Hendricks said.

However, City News Editor at The Cap Times Jason Joyce said the newspaper will not be sending any reporters to the walk-along with parole agents because these experiences are often skewed to show a specific part of an operation. 

“While we certainly cover these topics –– corrections, sexual harassment and assault, how formerly incarcerated individuals adapt to lives after prison –– this pitch qualifies as being a little too packaged for our style of enterprise reporting,” Joyce explained. 

The backlash the DOC receives from communities containing formerly incarcerated individuals on the sexual offender registry — especially communities with children — may be another reason for their increased publicity efforts this year.

“My first thought is: this is the Department of Corrections concerned about its image and concerned about controversy that comes up with placing sex offenders back into communities,” UW-Madison Journalism and Mass Communication Professor Robert Dreschel said. “They are using this as a strategy. They hope to make people more comfortable and give people more confidence that they really are keeping an eye out.” 

However, it is unclear whether this additional protection is necessary beyond ensuring the public and creating awareness.  

Data from the DOC shows low rates of recidivism –– the rate at which those formerly incarcerated commit crimes again –– for sexual offenders in comparison to other offenders. 

In 2010, sexual offenders acquired a recidivism rate of 16.8 percent compared to 31.6 percent of general offenders three years after release from prison. 

At this time, 46.7 percent of recidivism crimes for sexual offenders were violations of public orders –– like failure to provide registry information or obstructing a parole agent –– which includes disobeying Halloween restrictions. 

This number highlights sexual offenders low risk to engage in the same criminal behavior for which they were originally incarcerated –– only 4.9 percent of sexual offenders released from prison between 1992 and 2010 were convicted for a sexual offense again. 

For some, this creates disputes about how the DOC treats sexual offenders after being released from custody.

“It is a very controversial issue this issue of registration,” Dreschel said. “Whether somebody who serves their specified sentence for committing their crime, nevertheless, continues to be under supervision even beyond that date.”

However, Knutson called Wisconsin's protocols balanced in comparison to other states with more radical Halloween requirements. 

A federal judge in Georgia ruled a local sheriff violated the constitutional rights of registered sexual offenders by placing a sign reading: "WARNING! NO TRICK-OR-TREAT AT THIS ADDRESS!!" in front of their homes Tuesday. 

“Whether the media does stories on this or not –– whether people are paying attention or not –– we are always going to do our jobs, and that is making sure the registrants are telling us where they live, work and go to school, making sure they are abiding by their rules of supervision and getting the treatment they need,” Knutson said. 

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