Ben Braam came home exhausted after a long day of work one Friday night in October. The past few months had been a whirlwind of worry, hard work, and tough choices.
Since being released from prison in March, Braam had been struggling to get back on his feet. The pace of the world had changed in the near-decade he’d been incarcerated. Finding a job hadn’t been as difficult as he’d worried it would be, but finding a place to live and putting together a life were more challenging.
But, piece by piece, he was able to rebuild a life for himself. He moved in with a friend, worked hard and was promoted to manager at work, and was working on his social life. Braam had been incarcerated for 15 of the past 17 years and, like many people who do that kind of time, experienced intense culture shock upon release.
Still, he’d managed fairly enough. At least he didn’t have probation, parole or extended supervision to worry about. Thousands of people a year are sucked back into an endless cycle of incarceration by those three entities in Wisconsin. But Braam was free and clear of everything. No longer would he be part of the system.
The longest and most dreadful period of his life was behind him.
Until it wasn’t.
Braam returned home from work that Friday and found in his mailbox a letter from the Department of Corrections, which was curious since he wasn’t under any form of supervision.
The letter stated that it was the opinion of Attorney General Brad Schimel — who has since been voted out of office in favor of Democrat Josh Kaul — that Braam met the criteria for lifetime GPS monitoring because his was an offense sexual in nature and Braam had committed crimes on “separate occasions.”
When Braam was 20 years old he was sexual with a high school aged teenager who was 15. As part of his conviction Braam is required to register with the Department of Corrections and state basic information like his address, employment, school and things like that.
Because there were two incidents with the same person, Braam’s single trial led to one conviction on two charges. In Schimel’s opinion, which he wrote in 2017, that meant Braam met the “separate occasions” standard — which, under Wisconsin law, makes him eligible for lifetime GPS monitoring — which he must pay for.
Braam was ordered to report to the Department of Corrections (DOC) within five days or face arrest for the felony of refusing to put on the GPS monitoring. He made a distraught phone call to the DOC officer that supervises the sex offender registry. The official he spoke to said he had to either put on the monitoring bracelet or leave the state. They said it doesn’t matter that this was not a court-ordered sanction. They said it didn’t matter that he was not on parole, probation, extended supervision or that nearly eight months had passed since he’d been released in the first place. They said Attorney General Schimel had decided people needed to be on it, so he needed to be on it or go back to prison for refusing. End of story.
This article is not some plea for sympathy for Braam or others with sexually based offenses. Safety against sex offenders has long been at the forefront of community concerns. Nothing in this article minimizes that or the hurt, impact or trauma that have been inflicted on families by sex offenses. Rather, this is an article about the black hole the Wisconsin Department of Corrections can be.
Few are easier targets than people like Braam because of the nature of his crime. His crime was wrong. He served a decade and a half of incarceration for it. Then his incarceration ended and it was time for him to go home and move on with the rest of his life and become a contributing member of the community.
The Wisconsin DOC was not going to let that happen. Not for Braam or anyone who has been in the system, if the system can find a way to reel them back in.
What is Lifetime GPS?
The GPS is a monitoring bracelet that most offenders wear around their ankle. It tracks and reports an offenders location. If an offender enters a “forbidden zone,” the people who monitor the bracelets are able to see that and notify law enforcement that the offender was there.
Which is where things get murky. For offenders still on supervision, the forbidden zones are pretty cut and dry. Schools, parks, playgrounds, churches are usually on that list. Whatever the person’s rules specify.
But for people like Braam who aren’t on supervision, there are no forbidden zones. Unless the victim or victim’s family requests one, which would be incredibly rare.
In other words, people on supervision — on probation or parole — are already banned from being in certain areas. The GPS unit enhances the ability to catch them if they are in those places. If a sex offense were to occur somewhere an offender was, law enforcement would theoretically have a leg up on catching a perpetrator.
But a person like Braam, who is not on supervision and allowed to go wherever he likes, lifetime GPS monitoring is pretty much just lugging around a lifetime sentence of being connected to a GPS bracelet that for serves no function.
It is not clear how much public safety is enhanced by placing people on lifetime GPS. The offenders who are being released from prison without supervision are, for the most part, offenders like Braam who have been deemed low risk.
The sex offenders who are predatory or who assault children are not the offenders, for the most part, being released free and clear of supervision. A recent study posted on the Department of Corrections website showed that sex offenders who are released clear of any probation or parole have the lowest recidivism rate of nearly any criminals.
Offenders being released, including Braam, go through a focused End Of Confinement Review by professionals who assess their recidivism risk. Offenders who present an unnecessary danger to the public are flagged and go through a process called Chapter 980, where an offender can be held in a mental health facility while they undergo treatment for an indeterminate amount of time.
Many of the offenders who are “980’d” are not ever released, basically. The ones who are do have and warrant Lifetime GPS as well as lifetime extended supervision.
Braam was not flagged for the 980 process. His evaluator deemed him low risk.
DOC Spokesperson Tristan Cook told Madison365 that there are two categories of people who can be considered for Lifetime GPS. The first is an offender with one single conviction. For those offenders, it is discretionary whether they would be placed on GPS or have the public notified of their release.
The second category is offenders with multiple convictions. Those offenders would be placed on mandatory lifetime GPS upon release and the public would be notified of their release.
Cook said the Department of Corrections asked Attorney General Brad Schimel to specify for the Department what “multiple convictions” means.
Schimel, in a letter dated October 2017, said that multiple convictions would be anyone with more than one count of sexual assault.
Two former prosecutors told Madison365 that there is a difference between multiple counts and multiple convictions. If you get in a fight on State Street and hit the person in the face twice, that’s two counts. But we all understand it to be one fight. Each blow of the fight was not a separate criminal incident.
In any case, Schimel’s opinion was not acted on for a full year by the Department of Corrections. Department of Corrections Secretary John Litscher did not take action, but when he retired, new secretary Cathy Jess did. Finally, in October 2018, just weeks before Governor Scott Walker and Schimel were up for reelection, the Department reviewed hundreds of offenders and sent letters to Braam and 180 others.
Anyone on lifetime GPS but not on supervision is essentially just carrying the bracelet around for the rest of their lives — for no apparent good reason. Since there’s no places they can’t go, even if law enforcement is monitoring their GPS and sees they are in a place like a school or church, no one can do anything about it.
Madison365 spoke to one therapist who has worked with sex offenders for over 30 years. He said GPS could be a useful tool in catching the slips into recidivism that a high-risk offender might have. If they start frequenting the mall or a school area, over a period of time, this could be noted and law enforcement could intervene.
That would be the benefit to public safety that GPS brings with regard to those still under supervision or deemed high risk.
But is safety the real benefit?
Offenders on GPS pay $200 per month to be on it. No rules. No real monitoring. No place they can’t go. Just $200 per month to be on it, and it’s a felony to cut it off.
With that, the DOC will be making $2,400 a year from each of those 181 offenders they sent letters to on the advice of outgoing Schimel’s definition of what multiple convictions are. That’s $434,400 a year.
And, it turns out, the DOC’s concern for Braam’s future actions is strictly local. When Braam notified the Department that he would be taking a vacation outside of Wisconsin in January, he was told that was just fine.
In fact, he was told to stop by the DOC office so they could cut off that vital piece of public safety, the Lifetime GPS unit, until he came back to Wisconsin. He would not have to wear it for as long as he was traveling.
Community safety is always going to be a major and important issue. There are many offenders who are under Chapter 980 who are truly too dangerous to be released. No one is saying otherwise. There are also many ex-offenders who paid the consequences for their actions, completed their sentences and just want to move on with their lives but are being prevented from doing so under the threat of having to relive those consequences.
People receiving letters from the Department of Corrections with murky opinions about criteria for placing someone on lifetime sanctions? Taking people free and clear of the worst periods of their lives — and their victims’ lives — and threatening them with going through it all over again? Having guys off supervision pay $200 a month to be on this dubious thing with no real rules?
That’s not community safety. That is about widening the black hole that is the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and reeling in as many people as possible.