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The Man Next Door
A case in Racine pulls back the curtain on how the state deals with some of its most dangerous residents.

Illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley

To watch the stories on TV news, Michael W. Fink is the sort of sex offender your mother mutters about over dinner. After sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl – and spending about three years in prison between 1987 and 1994 – he molested two 12-year-old babysitters inside his girlfriend’s home, crimes that led to 12 more years behind bars. Worried that the 6-foot-tall, blue-eyed convict could commit yet another sex offense, officials with the Wisconsin departments of Justice and Correction chased the then-38-year-old back into Racine County court with allegations that he suffered from a mental disorder and was more likely to reoffend than not – making him a “sexually violent person” under a state law passed in 1993.

Offenders classified as “SVPs” rarely have their freedom returned to them. Between the law’s enactment in 1994 and June 2012, criminal justice officials allowed only 75 to exit the program completely, out of a population of about 350 who now live at the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, a complex of four housing units surrounded by razor wire. A few eventually qualify for a court-monitored “supervised release” program run jointly by the state departments of Health Services and Corrections, as Fink did in late 2012, when a psychologist determined that he was no longer “substantially probable … [to] engage in an act of sexual violence,” as a paper by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau phrases the requirement.

Each committed SVP undergoes an evaluation at least once a year, and those who have fallen below the more-likely-to-reoffend-than-not threshold become candidates for release. This doesn’t happen very often, and when it does, officials hope to enroll the man (to date, all have been men) in the supervised release program, as opposed to discharging him immediately.

“Supervised release is always better for public safety than immediate discharge,” says Kevin Moore, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Officials can recommit SVPs on supervised release on relatively short notice, if need be, but those released entirely must typically commit another crime to be returned to confinement. That means another victim and a failure of the legislation.

In Fink’s case, his supervised release is only just beginning. He moved into a home in Racine earlier this year – after the first house selected by the department turned out to be around the corner from one of his victims, a woman he once threatened to rape again. Officials learned of the victim’s location during a community notification process for the neighborhood around the first home. Now, Fink lives near 16th Street and South Memorial Drive, where he won’t be able to so much as drive to the grocery store without a chaperone. He’ll also be required to wear a tracking device for the remainder of his life, as the state Department of Health Services experiments with a number of recommendations included in a state audit inspired by his case.

The findings could both strengthen the process the department uses to locate suitable homes and reduce the burden on taxpayers. The state pays between $650 and $2,500 a month to rent apartments and single-family homes for SVPs like Fink, plus thousands more for drivers who transport and supervise the men as they travel to work, treatment sessions and other appointments. Auditors recommended negotiating cheaper leases and a lower hourly rate for in-person supervision, though the costs are likely to remain relatively high. Few landlords are willing to rent to SVPs – and some who do buy homes solely to rent them at a premium to the department, which faces tight deadlines and a minefield of local laws when looking for suitable homes.

The state spent about $2.8 million on the supervised release program in the 2011-12 fiscal year, but that’s $116,100 a year in per-person costs, versus an average of $143,100 a year at Sand Ridge. But is any of that cost borne by the men themselves? “My understanding is that some of them do [share in the cost],” Moore said, unsure at first. Yes, he said finally. “Some of them actually do.”

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