RACINE COUNTY — Nearly a month after Roger Clawson was supposed to be free, he is still in jail.
The issue is Clawson, a registered sex offender, has nowhere to live because of new sex offender ordinances. As a result, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections has put a hold on him requiring him to report to the County Jail nightly.
The statewide practice of holding homeless sex offenders in jail is something that some attorneys question the legality of, while others say it’s understandable.
As of Friday, Clawson had no idea when he will be able to live elsewhere, and DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab said in an email Thursday, “The offender will remain staying in the jail at night until he finds an approved residence within the county of his conviction.”
There are legal grounds for placing a hold on offenders if they cannot meet conditions of their release, such as finding housing in compliance with city laws, said Cecelia Klingele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor, who has researched the collateral consequences of sex offenders’ sentences.
But she said, “This raises serious questions about due process, when individuals are being confined not because they are unwilling to comply with the law, but as a result of poverty or other circumstances beyond their control.”
For instance, in Clawson’s situation, if he had enough money he could likely find somewhere that would rent to him despite sex offender residency ordinances. But he says he doesn’t have enough and, consequently, he has nowhere to stay.
Similarly, Sean Brown, a Racine criminal defense attorney said, “I would question the legality of it (holding someone in jail).”
After an offender has been released on extended supervision, there should be a revocation hearing and then a finding of a violation before he can be held in custody, Brown said. Without a hearing, there can’t be a violation.
“What did they violate? They cannot help that the place they have to live doesn’t allow them to live there,” he said, referring to ordinances.
Ed Yohnka, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois’ director of communications and public policy, also said, “Without knowing more about the circumstances I find this to be very troubling that someone could in fact, after they finish their sentence be held again ... This seems to be a very strange circumstance.” Wisconsin’s ACLU did not respond to requests for comment.
Racine attorney Robert Peterson, who has experience representing sex offenders, said he is not familiar with Clawson’s specific case. But he said he understands what the state is doing and the legal argument for holding homeless sex offenders in jail. “You have to have an approved residence,” he said.
“My question is the necessity and the wisdom of the ordinances that create these types of problems, especially when the empirical data we have doesn’t support their effectiveness.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Peterson, who warned the city about such ordinances even before they passed.
“This is a challenging public safety issue,” said Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling. “Nobody wants the offenders living next to them, but the thing really is where do they go?”
For now, he said he applauds the efforts of the Department of Corrections, holding sex offenders until restrictions can be met, such as making sure they have a place to live.
“You cannot arbitrarily release a sex offender and make them ‘homeless,’ ” he said. “The answer isn’t just boot them out the door.
“The community has spoken; this is what they want,” he said of the sex offender ordinances.
Clawson said corrections staff are being helpful with his job search, giving him a phone to call prospective employers and driving him to pick up applications. Once he has a job, he can start to save money for rent, he said.
He is grateful to be able to stay in the jail at night, rather than living outside homeless.
“In this weather, I’ll definitely take the jail and the bologna sandwich (for lunch),” he said. “At least I’m not living under a bridge ... If it was nice weather perhaps, but not now.”
Local sex offender ordinances
The Mount Pleasant Village Board passed an ordinance Jan. 13 greatly restricting where sex offenders can live. That ordinance came on the heels of similar ordinances passed in Racine, Sturtevant and Caledonia. The ordinances limit how close offenders can live to schools, day cares, churches, parks and playgrounds.