Wisconsin, what are you doing?

April 4, 2024

Sandy Rozek, , ,

By Sandy . . . It is a given that if one is convicted of a crime, some sort of punishment will follow. Why? It has been thus from the beginning of time. The hope is that the punishment will evoke a repulsion toward the criminal act and the unpleasantness that resulted from it and cause a turning away from it. If the lesson is learned as intended, society benefits.

This is a good thing. Less criminality, increased safety are very worthwhile goals in any society.

But what, then, what if the lesson is not learned? What if the miscreant, rather than turning away from the crime, turns back to it and reoffends? Then harsher punishment is meted out. Obviously, more is needed in this specific case to enable the offender’s realization that continued criminality will result in stronger and more stringent punishment. He had a chance, and he did not seize that opportunity. He must now suffer more severe consequences.

This is the purpose of first-time offenders being dealt with more leniently than repeat offenders. It is logical. It is effective. For the vast majority of those who have committed crimes of a sexual nature, it works; it works better than it does for those who commit every other category of crime with the exception of murder.  On average, virtually all valid follow-up studies show that upward of 95% of first-time offenders did not receive a second conviction for another sexual offense.

Why then, why, would the Wisconsin legislature pass law that renders useless this process? A bill has just been signed by the governor of that state that applies the consequences of a repeat offense when only one conviction has occurred.

It is not uncommon practice for the state to prosecute separate charges flowing from one incident as one, thus resulting in one conviction. For example, someone is found to have three illegal images on his computer; he is charged with three counts of possession of illegal pornography, and they are tried together: one case, one conviction, one sentence, and a required sex offender registration period of 15 years.

Under this new law, he is now guilty of three offenses; he is a repeat offender and is given the enhanced requirement of lifetime sex offender registration and lifetime GPS monitoring.

What is missing in this grand new scheme? There was no time between offenses, no time to consider whether he wished to cease or continue his criminal behavior. He is suddenly a repeat offender when he never had the opportunity to choose not to be one.

As egregious as this sounds, it is not the most so. This legislative action, formalized and codified by the governor, is retroactive. It reaches back and grabs by the throat all those who had two or more charges tried as one case. These are individuals who did learn the lesson, who made the right choice, who have not reoffended and are now living law-abiding lives. These are people with families, with jobs, with careers, people who were counting down the years and months and days until their obligation to register would be finished. These are also people who have completed their 15 years of required registration and been released from the obligation. These are, for the most part, productive, contributing members of society.

Now they will be part of the financial strain this new law places on Wisconsin. Now instead of being individuals who messed up, got punished, learned their lesson, and came out of the end of the tunnel into the daylight, they will be forever registrants, forever burdened with the additional expenses, limitations, and restrictions that sex offender registration entails. Wisconsin will see the burden on the taxpayers increase more and more as years go by, not only that dictated by increased registry and GPS monitoring but that required to defend legal action against them.

And the saddest thing of all? Wisconsin citizens will not see a corresponding rise is public safety along with the rise in financial burden. They will not see any rise in public safety at all. Those who have been retroactively made lifetime registrants will continue as they have been, and those going forward will do so as they would have, with the few who haven’t learned the lesson getting reconvicted and the many who have learned it struggling to make a life under the shadow of a punitive, crippling “civil regulatory scheme” that, in 25 plus years of existence, has no evidence—none—to show that it is effective in lowering recidivism, protecting children, or improving safety.

Written by 

Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.