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The topic of sex offenders is a hot button issue in any year.
In an election year? Crank the rhetoric up to 11.
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has used several ads to hammer Democratic challenger Tony Evers, the state schools superintendent, about a case involving a Madison-area middle school teacher viewing pornography at school.
In return, the Evers campaign released an ad slamming the state Department of Corrections under Walker. The ad stars former Corrections Secretary Ed Wall, who was appointed to the post by Walker.
"Under Scott Walker, the Department of Corrections has only 18 people tracking 25,000 sex offenders" and "there are nearly 3,000 sex offenders that are unaccounted for," Wall says in the ad for Evers.
Wall is one of four former officials in Walker’s administration who have publicly denounced the governor as he seeks a third term.
Is he right?
In the ad, as Wall speaks, his words are echoed by snippets from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel news article that appear on the screen. The footnote says the story ran Sept. 18, 2017, but there is no such story on that date.
Instead, Evers campaign deputy communications director Britt Cudaback pointed to an Aug. 27, 2018, Journal Sentinel article and the Aug. 21, 2018, Legislative Reference Bureau report cited in the article.
The article does note there are more than 25,000 sex offenders on the registry, but the characterization of 3,000 as "unaccounted for" comes from a Democratic lawmaker, state Rep. Sondy Pope, not the report itself. And that number has problems.
So does the notion there are only 18 people tracking all 25,000 offenders.
Let’s dig in.
How many offenders?
In response to a request from Pope, D-Cross Plains, the Legislative Reference Bureau released its Aug. 21, 2018, report, titled "Sex Offender Registrants, August 2018."
According to the report: As of Aug. 20, 2018, of the 25,159 offenders on the state's sex offender registry, 16,219 were considered "compliant" and 2,735 were considered non-compliant.
That’s where the "nearly 3,000 unaccounted for" phrase comes from.
According to Department of Corrections regulations, an offender is classified non-compliant if he or she, for instance, has reported an incorrect address to the department or they haven't updated their place of employment with the state.
Among those who were non-compliant, the report found a much smaller number, 308, had absconded. That is, according to the reference bureau analysis, they were refusing to keep in touch with DOC agents.
That’s a vital distinction. It’s that smaller group that could more correctly be described as "unaccounted for."
Corrections department spokesman Tristan Cook said "generally, even if a sex offender is not compliant, we know exactly where they are living and working and are waiting for them to provide updated or missing information required by state statute."
Many, he said, will quickly respond once they are told the information is out of date or missing.
Cook cited a more recent count, as of Oct. 22, 2018, that showed 25,205 registered sex offenders. Of those:
-- 6,205 (approximately 25 percent) are incarcerated, generally in an adult prison.
-- 5,856 (approximately 23 percent) are supervised by a probation or parole agent.
-- 13,144 (approximately 52 percent) who have completed supervision requirements.
Cook said that in 2017 the department referred 709 cases of non-compliance to local district attorneys for possible prosecution. Those cases, he said, represent those who knowingly or intentionally refused to provide required information.
So far in 2018, the department has referred 510 such cases.
Who is tracking the offenders?
Perhaps the more important number in the claim is the idea that there are only 18 people tracking all 25,000 sex offenders.
The first thing to note is that roughly half of that number are either in prison or on probation. So, clearly there are more than 18 people involved in tracking them.
According to Cook, there are more than 4,000 members of the security staff in the prisons and more than 1,100 probation and parole agents. Another 500 Department of Health Services employees work at the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center, which houses the program for sexually violent offenders.
Additionally, there are 90 corrections employees who staff an around-the-clock electronic monitoring center.
Where does the 18 figure come from?
There are 18 "sex offender registration specialists," whose job it is to work to keep sex offenders in compliance.
So, the 18 is a real number -- but the ad claims those 18 are the only ones responsible for monitoring all 25,000 sex offenders.
That’s way off base.
The Evers ad claims that "under Scott Walker, the Department of Corrections has only 18 people tracking 25,000 sex offenders" and "there are nearly 3,000 sex offenders that are unaccounted for."
But the ad uses real numbers to create distortions.
There are 18 sex offender registration specialists, but thousands more are involved in keeping tabs on the 25,000 offenders -- many of whom are still behind bars.
There are nearly 3,000 offenders deemed "non-compliant," but that is different than "unaccounted for." A report offered a much smaller figure for those who had absconded -- that is, were refusing to keep in touch with DOC agents.
For a statement that contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, our rating is Mostly False.
YouTube, "Tony Evers for Governor, ‘3,000’" Sept. 26, 2018.
PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Third attack ad vs. Tony Evers in teacher porn has some of the same problems," August 16, 2018.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Fourth former Scott Walker administration officials blasts the governor ahead of election," Oct. 19, 2018.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wisconsin corrections officials don’t have current info for nearly 3,000 sex offenders," August 27, 2018.
Vote Smart, Facts Matter, "Governor Doyle Announces Sex Offender Apprehension and Felony Enforcement Initiative," Sept. 20, 2005.
Email, Tristan Cook, Department of Corrections, communications director, October 23, 2018.
Email, Britt Cudaback, deputy communications director for Tony for Wisconsin, Oct. 25, 2018.
Legislative Reference Bureau, "Sex Offender Registrants, August 2018," August 21, 2018.
Wisconsin State Legislature statute 301.45 "Sex Offender Registration."
Department of Health Services, "Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center.
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