Georgia’s sex offender residency restrictions have led some offenders to live in the woods because they have no legal place to stay. Reminiscent of leper colonies, they are forced to camp out on the fringes of society.
Under Georgia law, the state’s 16,000 sex offenders are prohibited from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, parks and other areas where children gather. While the law is designed to protect children, critics charge that it leaves some sex offenders homeless, unable to find employment and unsupervised due to their transient living situation.
Probation officers in Cobb County had no place for sex offenders to stay once released from prison. To solve that problem, they began sending them to a densely wooded area behind an office building in Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta.
In September 2009, nine sex offenders were living in tents around a makeshift fire pit. “I’m living like an animal. It’s just bad,” said Levertice Johnson, 52, who was convicted of child molestation in 2002. “You can’t clean up, you can’t clean yourself, you can’t do nothing. I’d rather be dead. I’m serious. I’d rather be dead.”
Even probation officials acknowledged the situation was not the best solution. “While having an offender located in a camp area is not ideal, the greater threat lies in homeless offenders that are not [at] a specified location and eventually absconding supervision with their whereabouts unknown,” stated Ahmed Holt, manager of Georgia’s sex offender administration unit.
Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, disagreed. “Requiring people to live like animals in the woods is both inhumane and a terrible idea for public safety,” she said.
State officials moved quickly to close the camp, but not because it was inhumane; rather, the colony was disbanded after it came to the attention of the mainstream media and became an embarrassment.
Sheriff’s deputies told the sex offenders at the camp they had 24 hours to pack their belongings and move, and another 72 hours to report a new address to their probation officers. Most had nowhere they could legally go.
William Hawkins, 34, fell into that category. When he was 15 years old he had sex with a 12-year-old in Florida. He received two years on house arrest and 10 years probation. Georgia officials gave him a year in jail after a series of missteps that resulted in his failure to register as a sex offender.
“I don’t understand how the state gets away with it,” Mindy Hawkins said about her husband, who was one of the camp residents. “This is ridiculous – especially when he has a family, a home, a support system here. It’s inhumane.” William can’t stay with his wife, who lives in Virginia, because officials will not transfer his probation.
Sex offender colonies have formed in other states due to restrictive residency laws, most notably the infamous colony under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami. [See: PLN, June 2008, p.1; July 2009, p.36; Dec. 2009, p.14]. The Miami bridge colony was finally dismantled in March 2010 and its residents were relocated to apartments, motels and trailer parks following a change in the local sex offender residency statute.
“It’s the end of the Julia Tuttle [colony], but it’s not the end of this kind of place,” said Patrick, a sex offender who lived under the bridge for three years. “There will be another Julia Tuttle, another place where people will put us so that we are out of sight and out of mind.”
Unfortunately, he’s most likely correct.
Sources: Associated Press, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Miami Herald, www.findlaw.com
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