Editor’s Note: The Lake Geneva Regional News presents opposing views from Editorial Board members on Lake Geneva's sex offender ordinance. Click here for the other side.
I know how people feel about sex offenders.
I agree that sex crimes are reprehensible, especially those in which children are the victims.
Such offenders often face long prison sentences or long commitments inside mental health treatment centers. And rightfully so.
But after they are released from custody — after they have paid their dues to society — these offenders have rights just like any other American citizen. Among other things, they have a right to live wherever they choose.
I know that is difficult to hear.
Where sex offenders are concerned, people feel abhorred. People do not want to hear about sex offenders having rights. And people certainly do not want to live around sex offenders.
Whenever the subject comes up of local government restrictions on where these offenders can live, the popular response is: “We decent people should be able to keep sex offenders out of our community.”
That sort of reaction is common. In some ways, it is understandable.
It is also a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Lake Geneva banished sex offenders from the community in 2015 by prohibiting them from living within 2,000 feet of any place where children gather, including schools, playgrounds, recreation trails and more. In effect, the entire community was declared off-limits.
City officials now realize that with that extreme ordinance, they are violating the law.
A federal judge in Milwaukee ruled in 2017 that such an ordinance is unconstitutional because, among other things, it stops an entire class of people from living wherever they choose. In other words, it violates their right to be treated fairly under the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
On the advice of the city attorney, Lake Geneva aldermen have taken steps to change the local ordinance by making the artificial barrier less extreme around schools and playgrounds and such.
The city attorney recommended cutting the buffer from 2,000 feet to 750 feet, but a city council committee settled on 1,000 feet. The full city council has yet to consider the matter.
Reaction in the community has been predictably harsh and emotional toward the idea of making it easier for sex offenders to live among us. One alderman even has suggested leaving the unconstitutional ban on the books until a lawsuit is filed.
Such a strategy would be irresponsible. Not only would it risk costing taxpayers money from losing a lawsuit, it would send the signal that Lake Geneva values political popularity more than adherence to the law.
The city council must demonstrate that our community is not above the law, by approving the 750-foot buffer recommended by the city attorney.
This will still have the effect of protecting children — at least, as much as any artificial buffer can work — but it will not constitute a complete and unconstitutional ban.
This is one of those times when elected leaders must do not what is popular, but what is right.
Scott Williams is editor of the Lake Geneva Regional News.