Three years after adopting one of the nation’s stiffest stances on sex offenders, Georgia lawmakers are rethinking some of the crackdown’s toughest provisions.
After complaints from civil rights groups and round after round of costly court challenges, powerful Georgia lawmakers are looking to soften some of the very parts of the law that incited the greatest debate.
Changes to the 2006 law could allow some offenders to petition the legal system to get off the registry, allow others to volunteer at churches and clear the way for disabled and elderly offenders to be exempt of the strict residency requirements.
The revisions, which already have cleared the Senate, are aimed at addressing some of the most vocal critics who challenged the rules in court. They have won the support of sheriff’s groups, defense attorneys and some of the sex offenders who so vocally criticized them.
“I think they start to create a rational law that can move in the direction of creating public safety,” said Kelly Piercy, who was convicted of child pornography charges in 1999. “They are actually bringing this legislation back to its noble intent.”
But the most stirring of changes still could face a backlash from the House lawmakers who supported the measure three years ago as a way to protect Georgia’s children from the state’s 16,000 sex offenders.
“I’ve said since the day we passed the bill that we knew that this was a pretty big change and there were some things we needed to revisit, but I’m not on board with all the changes,” said House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, the law’s sponsor.
He wouldn’t elaborate on what parts of the proposal concerned him, but he did say he would fight any changes that could cripple the law.
“I’m for anything that makes it easier to administer the rules, but I’m not in favor of anything that could weaken the overall purpose of the law.”
The law, which supporters say is among the nation’s toughest, was passed in 2006 at the urging of Republican leaders who vowed it would prevent the state from becoming a “safe haven” for Georgia’s sex offenders.
Shortly after it took effect, civil rights groups challenged a provision that banned offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of just about anywhere children gather. They claimed it rendered vast areas of Georgia off-limits to offenders.
They also have targeted other portions of the law, with at least eight challenges that have been resolved or are pending in state and federal court.
State Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, said his proposal aims to address those concerns.
“I want it every bit as harsh on the dangerous predators, but I don’t want it so broad as to treat some people who aren’t sexual predators like they are,” Harp said.
One change would allow “low risk offenders,” such as those convicted of statutory rape, to petition the courts to get off the registry after completing their sentence. The law has been criticized by judges for treating the most egregious offenders, such as child molesters, the same as those convicted for having consensual sex with an underage partner.
It also would clear the way for most sex offenders to volunteer in churches. Sex offenders who are elderly and disabled could ask the courts to be released from the residency requirements under the proposal. Both those issues are at the center of federal lawsuits.
While I’m not sympathetic to these people, on the other side I can see the problems of rolling people on their death beds out into the street,” Harp said.
And it would allow the homeless to identify the place they sleep using a street address or other description after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled last year the law fails to tell homeless offenders how they can comply.
Another section would clarify parts of the measure that have put people convicted of kidnapping or falsely imprisoning a minor during other crimes on the sex offender registry. Instead, they would only be put on the registry if their crimes involved a sex offense.
A key portion also would address privacy advocates concerned about a requirement that sex offenders hand over their Internet passwords. Under the proposal, offenders would keep their passwords but still hand over their e-mail addresses and user names.
The proposal has earned the support of sheriff’s groups, who say is crucial to help their deputies enforce the existing laws.
“By and large it addresses a lot of these pending cases and answers some of the concerns that were unanswered,” said Terry Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association. “It’s a great step forward.”
Democrats couldn’t help but remind GOP leaders they raised concerns about the legality of the law earlier. State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Decatur, said it was “unfortunate” that taxpayer dollars were spent to defend flawed law.
Rome News Tribune