By MARK JAEGER
Ozaukee Press staff
Sandy Cornell has spent the past two decades as a sex-offender registration specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
She also characterizes herself as a “very overprotective” mother who keeps a close eye on her three children.
The opposing viewpoints of those two roles came into play last week as Cornell cast doubt about the effectiveness of residency restrictions for convicted sexual offenders.
She was to appear before the Village of Fredonia’s Public Safety Committee, but the panel couldn’t formally convene because it didn’t have a quorum. Its chairman, Trustee John Rudolph, resigned that day and two other members were out of town.
Still, Village President Joe Short invited Cornell to share her thoughts about the possibility of residency restrictions being enacted with the crowd of about a dozen residents who showed up for the meeting.
In conjunction with her remarks, Short showed three maps showing how much of the village would be off limits if it enacted an ordinance prohibiting convicted sexual offenders from living within 250, 500 or 1,000 feet of a park, school or church.
At the broadest range, offenders would be barred from living in more than two-thirds of the village.
“If these kinds of restrictions worked, I would be all for them,” Cornell said. “The problem is, all they do is provide residents with a false sense of security. There is no evidence that these restrictions keep children safer and no evidence that they reduce sexual offenses.”
She called the local ordinances “feel-good laws” that do little to protect the community.
Residency restrictions do not keep offenders out of neighborhoods, Cornell said.
“They can still walk past or drive through a neighborhood, they just can’t live there,” she said.
Although sex offenders must register with corrections officials anywhere in Wisconsin, Cornell said statewide restrictions on where those released offenders can live have not been imposed because the law-enforcement community is deeply divided on the issue.
Residency restrictions on sex offenders were enacted in Iowa, and Cornell said the impact was the opposite of the intent.
Prior to the law, 95% of Iowa offenders complied with that state’s registry program. After the restrictions were put in place, compliance with the mandatory registry dropped to 50%.
“If the residency laws are too restrictive, offenders just don’t report or become homeless. In Wisconsin, we’d rather know where they are,” Cornell said.
“The sex offender relies on secrecy. It is not where they live, but how they live that you should be concerned about.”
Cornell said about 95% of Wisconsin’s 21,000 sexual offenders are currently adhering to the registry program.
“Wisconsin is very tough on sex offenders. We check on them at their homes and workplaces. If an offender fails to keep us up to date on where they are, we need to give them a few years (in prison) to send them a message,” she said.
When a community enacts residency restrictions, it does nothing to stop sexual offenses, she said.
“The intentions my be very noble, but the offender just moves to the next community, even if the best place for him is to be with his family. The best help for offenders is stability — if the offender doesn’t have stability in their life, the repeat rate goes up,” Cornell said.
It was just such a case that touched off the local debate about residency restriction, when residents learned that a registered sex offender is living with his parents near the Northern Ozaukee School District campus.
Even residents who have lobbied for an ordinance concede there is nothing they can do to force offenders who already live in the village to move.
Cornell said the idea of creating safety zones around parks and schools may be effective in preventing sex offenders from having contact with children.
The concept, Cornell said, is to keep known offenders from loitering in areas where children congregate, like playgrounds and parks.
“You don’t want them in areas where the offender can become familiar with children and gain their confidence,” she said.
Cornell said parents who want to ensure their children are safe need to take a very active interest in their youngsters’ lives.
“Nobody comes into my kids’ world without my knowing about it. My kids might not always like it, but I would be very surprised if they ever become victims of a sexual offender because my husband and I are so involved in their lives,” she said.
Parents need to do all they can to protect their children from sexual predators who use the Internet to gain access to young lives, she said.
If the community is truly concerned about keeping track of sexual offenders in their community, Cornell said, residents should push for an increased police presence.
With only a part-time police department, that initiative would not be easy, especially at a time of tight municipal budgets.
“It is something that is possible but it would be very expensive,” Short warned.