Since 1984, Paul has molested or raped at least four girls between the ages of 7 and 14, crimes for which he served nearly 10 years in prison. Sitting in a Willy Street coffee shop, Paul, 40, explains that he is no longer attracted to prepubescent females and will therefore not re-offend after his probation ends in four years.
"I always told myself that if they feel good they will like it, and they'll say nothing," says Paul, who asked that his last name not be used. "I realized that I was living a lie. Sex offending is a waste of time. I'm going to die victim-free."
But since he was last released from prison in 2001, Paul has had his probation revoked several times. Following a series of failed polygraphs, he admitted to twice masturbating in his parked car, had unapproved contact with minor females, and confessed to state agents that at least three girls, all of whom attended his church, had found their way into his masturbatory fantasies.
Still, Paul is adamant that he's reformed. "Sometimes you see a young girl and you think, 'How in the hell could you ever do something like that?'" he relates. "I thought that it was normal. I know now it's not normal."
Paul is one of more than 19,000 registered sex offenders in Wisconsin. As such, he's subject to an ongoing barrage of legislation aimed at restricting his whereabouts, social life and job opportunities. Most of the legislation passed over the last 15 years covers a broad spectrum of sex crimes, with more prescriptive laws targeting repeat offenders like Paul.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jim Doyle signed off on Wisconsin's version of Jessica's Law, which imposes a 25-year minimum sentence on those convicted of child sex crimes. The Legislature this session passed, and Doyle signed, a law requiring lifetime GPS tracking for certain types of sex offenders, even though once an offender's probation ends, the Department of Corrections has no legal authority to restrict his or her movements.
More punitively, legislation requiring sex offenders to adorn their cars with green license plates that identify them as such was part of the budget bill passed by the GOP-controlled Assembly. It was ultimately removed from the bill but has already been introduced as stand-alone legislation.
This ever-changing matrix of rules and regulations governing sex offenders has created a very expensive, labor-intensive, technologically sophisticated and increasingly complicated apparatus intended to keep communities safe from sexual predation. But critics, citing emerging research, are calling into question the efficacy of many states' sex-offender-monitoring programs.
A Human Rights Watch report released in September calls for narrowing the scope and duration of sex-offender registration and eliminating online registries and residency restrictions. A meta-analysis of more than 400 studies, presented to the Legislature this session, indicates that just 10% to 15% of registered sex offenders are at high risk of re-offending. Most of the others, the study suggests, are victims of knee-jerk politics.
"We're wasting resources on 85% to 90% of the people and neglecting to deal with the population we really do need to deal with," says state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison). "We've shot-gunned sex offenders bad, because there's a strong public distaste for them, but we use that term so loosely, even when there's a very low chance that a person is a problem offender."
A constant state of tension
All sex offenders, on being released from prison, are issued a standard set of 40 rules. Besides expected prohibitions against contact with minors, consuming alcohol and using the Internet, restrictions are placed on their dress (no jeans with holes, for example) and their sex lives. Consensual adult sex must be pre-approved by an offender's agent, who must screen and conduct a background check on any potential partner.
Agents often add to this list of restrictions based on an offender's criminal history. "I have about three pages of rules and regulations that I have to follow," says Paul, who can't lawfully leave his apartment without a state-approved chaperone, except to go to work and therapy. (His brother served as chaperone for the interview at the coffee shop.) "I walk out the door in the morning and I break my rules, that's how intense they are."
Clearly, Paul is among the "problem percent" of offenders. In April 1984, when he was 17, Paul got an 11-year-old female drunk and had sexual intercourse with her. Paul had sex with the girl again on Oct. 4, 1986. Thirteen days later, he molested a 12-year-old female. He was sentenced in 1987 to seven years' probation.
In May 1991, Paul's probation was revoked after he molested his wife's 7-year-old daughter; he was sentenced to five years in prison. Paroled in December 1992, Paul was back in custody six months later after assaulting a 12-year-old girl, whose reaction, claims Paul, had a curative affect.
"My last victim, she was 12 years old and she was -- this is very hard for me, okay? -- I fondled her breast and asked her if she liked it," he explains. "She looked me dead in the eyes, and her eyes welled up with tears and she said, 'No.' I get flashbacks of her with tears in her eyes."
Today, with truth-in-sentencing laws, it is exceptionally rare for sex offenders to be released early, removing their incentive for getting treatment in prison. When their mandatory release date nears, steps are taken to plug them into the state's monitoring system. Many, like Paul, go to halfway homes until they find employment and a place to live. These are two very difficult challenges, because sex offenders, unlike other criminals, have few legal protections against job and housing discrimination.
The state also restricts where they can and cannot work.
"It takes them a long time to secure employment," says Melissa Roberts, a sex-offender specialist with the Department of Corrections. "Some sex offenders have used their employment as a way of finding victims. So we have to look at that very carefully."
At halfway houses like ATTIC Correctional Services on Odana Road, sex offenders are taught basic job-seeking skills, like interviewing strategies and filling out applications. They are also debriefed on the restrictions they'll live under and harassments they'll likely encounter once they re-enter society.
"Their eyes kind of glaze over at that point," says Terry Marshall, ATTIC's director of correctional services. "The case managers prepare them that once you're out of your cocoon here, this is the reality of what you face. It's a constant sense of tension."
Paul's sex-offending history was terrible enough that police held a community notification meeting prior to his move into a downtown Madison neighborhood. He blames the meeting and his presence on the registry for ongoing taunts and harassments.
"I've been shot with BB guns, I've had apples thrown at me, which left welts," says Paul. "I've been called 'baby raper' walking past people's houses."
Once he was refused service at his neighborhood hair salon, which had his notification poster hanging in its window. He's also endured on-the-job harassment, including finding his desk littered with trash.
"I'd hear the baby-raper thing, the silent treatment," recalls Paul of his first post-prison job. "You don't get trained properly because the people training you hate your guts, they'd have meetings behind your back. It was very challenging for me each time they'd do a massive hiring. The old people got used to me, but the new people would start it over."
'I never did anything wrong'
On the other end of the spectrum is Steven Howell, a twice-convicted child sex offender. Howell says people he meets, coworkers included, are mainly befuddled as to why he's on the registry.
"There's a lot of guys in my situation, guys my age who've had sex with a girl her age," he says. "For the most part, people don't understand why I'm in trouble."
According to court documents, when he was 18 years old and a senior at DeForest High School, Howell had sexual relations with a 14-year-old freshman girl. When she became pregnant, her doctor alerted authorities. Spared criminal charges, Howell was placed in a deferred prosecution program, which required him to write a letter of apology and attend therapy.
Shortly after, Howell began dating a 15-year-old. Six months into that relationship, the girl's stepmother reported him to police and he was charged with second-degree sexual assault of a child (the most common sex crime among Wisconsin's sexual-offender registrants). He was sentenced to four months in jail, followed by five years of probation. Despite this, Howell continued seeing the girl, which eventually landed him in prison for 18 months and on the sex-offender registry for a lifetime.
"I was young and didn't think it was that big of a deal," says Howell, now 22. "I thought the only people who got into trouble for that type of stuff were the ones who were raping little girls or 70-year-old guys with little boys. So I had no clue how serious it was."
Howell, until recently, was living in downtown Madison, under harsher restrictions than Paul. Aside from work and therapy, he was allowed just eight hours out of his apartment each week, to grocery shop, do laundry and other chores. Like most offenders, he needed permission from his agent to use a computer, even to do his banking online while at work.
Malls, festivals or anywhere young girls might be are off-limits. To go to a movie, Howell must have a state-approved chaperone. He has no friends, is lonely, depressed and longs for female companionship. But the restrictions he lives under will be in place at least until 2012, when his probation ends.
"I definitely don't understand it," says Howell. "They're worried that I might start talking to some chick who's 14. They make it sound like I raped a child. I never did anything violent or wrong to her, other than that I had to leave her because of going to prison. I'm just as much of a victim as she is."
Pocan, who has voted against several pieces of sex-predator legislation, including the recent lifetime GPS tracking, believes the state should revisit the more sweeping legislation it's enacted over the last 15 years.
"If someone is not really a threat to society, and we know they're really not a threat to society, we're taking their life and screwing it up," says Pocan. "There's the politics of it and then there's the science of it, and the politics of it is off the chart right now. If you want to be tough on crime, you're tough on sex predators. You use sex predators to mean everybody, because you don't differentiate, because there is no intellectual thought put into what you're saying."
The price tag for keeping close watch on sex offenders in Wisconsin runs in the tens of millions of dollars. Just maintaining the registry cost nearly $1.3 million last year. The new lifetime GPS tracking requirement, in its original language, would've cost nearly $25 million. But by scaling back the number of sex crimes it covered, lawmakers brought the tab down to $5 million.
"If you want to put it on that problem 15% [of the sex-offender population], I'm fine with that, because we should know where they are at all times," says Pocan. "But to put it on [everyone else] doesn't make sense."
Despite its expense, the GPS law, which takes effect in January, may yield few public safety gains.
"The power of GPS is for us to say you can't be here," says the DOC's Roberts. "When they have no criminal sentence left, we have no authority to create exclusionary zones. So we will have a pool of people out there who have GPS equipment on them, with no conditions on where they can and cannot go."
On July 19, about 100 east-side Madison residents descended on La Follette High School for a meeting called by police. Its purpose was to inform them that convicted kidnapper and rapist Lindon Knutson was moving to their neighborhood the following week.
Knutson, now 59, is believed to have raped at least 10 women since the late 1960s. His prison time stemmed from the kidnapping and rapes of three adult females. Though he was released under the most intensive monitoring available, police determined he posed enough of a threat to alert residents.
"As you can expect, those are difficult meetings," says Madison Police Capt. Tom Snyder. "It may be a sort of cliché to say that no one wants a sex offender living in their backyard, but it's the truth. It's a real balance. You have to balance the public's right to know with the need for successful reintegration."
Knutson declined Isthmus' requests for an interview.
There are three levels of notification, the lowest being police notification only. Level Two cases, like Howell, require a targeted notification to places like schools and day care centers. Level Three, for offenders like Paul and Knutson, is a full-blown community notification. This is done, says Snyder, only "a handful" of times each year.
Many residents would like to see community alerts for all offenders moving into neighborhoods, but Snyder says doing so would eventually stop people from paying attention, since many offenders pose little to no risk. Some say the effectiveness of the state's online sexual-offender registry is similarly diluted because the vast majority of registrants aren't apt to re-offend.
"When people know the registry is that broad, we weaken the value of it," says Pocan, drawing a distinction between sex predators and sex offenders. "The problem is that it's extremely expensive to taxpayers. Secondly, if someone made a mistake at 18, they pay for it for the rest of their life, even when it's not the level of mistake that people think it is."
But Stacie Rumenap, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Stop Child Sex Predators, which pushed Jessica's Law nationally, calls online registries a critical component to keeping communities safe.
"You may have a neighbor who you think is the best neighbor in the world, and come to find out that person is a registered sex offender," says Rumenap. "These are people we trust. When you can't identify who is a sexual predator, I think the community responds, and they demand that something be done about the issue of child sexual predation."
Making a list
Over the last 15 years, a series of laws named after missing and exploited children have been enacted nationwide. The Jacob Wetterling Act created sex offender registries. Megan's Law put in place the community notification component. And the Adam Walsh Act built a DNA-based national sex-offender registry, set mandatory minimum sentences and increased the penalties for child sex trafficking and prostitution.
These laws were the policy response to a series of horrendous crimes in which children were abducted, sexually assaulted and, in most cases, murdered. When these crimes occurred, there was no central way to find these children or zero in on who might have assaulted them. Most sex offenders weren't monitored, and electronic monitoring technology wasn't available.
"Now families are able to go online and actually see where a sex predator is living," says Rumenap. "All of these pieces of the puzzle are important to keeping the community safe."
Last year, President Bush signed into law a bill proposed by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), requiring states to provide uniform information on their registries. The bill also establishes a national sex offender registry, increasing penalties for noncompliance.
Since 1994, convicted sex offenders have been required by federal law to register with the state. In Wisconsin, sex offenders pay $60 annually to maintain the state's registry, which contains their addresses, a current picture, a listing of the sex crimes they've been convicted of, supervision status, and whether they're considered compliant, among other identifiers. The goal is to strip offenders of their anonymity within a community.
Statutory language drives the number of years an offender must register. Five types of felonies require lifetime registration, while 24 others require 15 years. Time on the registry begins after criminal sentence ends. In Wisconsin, two-thirds of offenders are lifetime registrants.
An offender has 10 days to report any changes in the required information. Failure to do so can lead to a complaint being filed and felony arrest warrant issued.
Despite such rules, offenders often fall through the cracks. Of the approximately 600,000 registered sex offenders nationwide, 100,000 are "lost," or noncompliant. Wisconsin's 19,000 registered sex offenders include more than 1,000 whose whereabouts are unknown.
Wisconsin's sex-offender compliance rate is much higher than the national average, thanks in part to the Sex Offender Apprehension and Felony Enforcement (SAFE) initiative put forth by Gov. Jim Doyle. The initiative, launched in the fall of 2005, created a SAFE Team of five former law enforcement officers who work 20 hours a week zeroing in on noncompliant offenders.
"The likelihood that someone will re-offend when there's some kind of monitoring going on are greatly diminished," says SAFE Team manager Rich Cowan, a former Madison police officer and assistant chief. "I think the need to register certainly has a positive impact on reducing the recidivism among offenders."
Since it began, the SAFE Team has tracked down more than 1,700 noncompliant offenders to places as far away as South Africa. Each week, Cowan receives a list of offenders who are noncompliant -- those who've absconded from supervision. The SAFE Team, which has no arrest authority, focuses primarily on offenders who pose the greatest public safety risk. Currently, it has roughly 200 open cases.
"The theory is that we'll get it down to next to nothing," says Cowan. "I don't think we'll ever have total compliance, because people just don't work that way."
Changing the future
Life as a sex offender is not only shameful, it's expensive. With monthly administrative fees, rent on electronic or GPS tracking equipment, restitution, mandatory polygraphs at $370 a pop, and offender registration fees, an offender's tab can reach several thousand dollars each year.
Even after an offender's financial penance ends, the costs in lost opportunities continue. "Does my future off of probation seem bright or bleak? C'mon!" says Paul. "What's reality? I walk down the street and somebody notices me, they can call the cops. That's reality. What kind of future do I got? I make $6.50 an hour."
ATTIC's Marshall, however, has little sympathy. "Many of these guys have gone back to prison multiple times, and many have multiple sex offenses," he says. "These are the guys who've burned all of their bridges in the community. Working with this population is not good for the digestion."
Marshall says that, because 25% of all inmates have a sex offense on record, there are too few beds in places like ATTIC to facilitate the re-entry of every offender. "You have to make sure you have enough resources to adequately supervise these people," he says. "They have to be released by law from prison, and we have to make sure they have a place to go."
For sex offenders living in Dane County, finding a place to live recently became even more difficult. On Oct. 4, the County Board, on a 20-12 vote, passed an ordinance that allows landlords to refuse tenancy to sex offenders.
Pocan says that, when it comes to sex offenders, lawmakers are preoccupied more with generating press releases than crafting practical solutions. He hopes the emerging research will get lawmakers thinking of cheaper but more efficient ways to manage the sex-offender population.
"One of the things we can do is have them come in more regularly for lie detector tests, and do some of the things that we know help keep them from re-offending," he says. "But until we really understand that population, we have to do the things that we can do to keep the public safe."
Howell would like to go to college, but says his agent won't allow it. And, until he identifies his ex-girlfriends as victims, his harsher restrictions will remain. He'll neither escape nor outlive his status as a child sex predator.
"I really can't be angry because it's already happened and done," he says. "I can't have any regrets because I was in love with the girl and I'm not going to regret love. All I can do is change the future."
That's easier said than done. Three days before a scheduled polygraph on Aug. 16, Howell confessed to his agent that he violated 17 of his 47 rules, including "the big three" -- unapproved sex (with two adults), contact with his victim (she came to visit him at his apartment) and consuming alcohol.
At a re-confinement hearing last week, the DOC recommended that Howell serve almost two years in prison. Dane County Judge Daniel Moeser sentenced him to 18 months.