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Georgia Eases Sex Offender Restrictions in Face of Federal Court Challenge

Laws that restrict where sex offenders can live have been popular in legislatures throughout the U.S. With much fanfare and hoopla, Georgia passed one of the nation’s toughest sex offender residency statutes on July 1, 2006.

That law prohibited sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, churches, school bus stops and other places where children gather. In effect, the law served to drive sex offenders into desolate areas or out of the state.

At one point, as reported in PLN, a group of homeless sex offenders set up a tent city on state land behind an office park in suburban Atlanta until they were evicted. [See: PLN, May 2010, p.20].

Before Georgia’s law even went into effect, however, civil liberties groups began filing lawsuits; as a result, state legislators had to make changes before the entire law was scraped by the federal courts. “The bottom line was that the hammer was about to fall on us, and I was deeply concerned that the entire statute was in jeopardy,” said state Senator Seth Harp, who helped push through a revision to the law.

One of those hammers was a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s sex offender residency restrictions as being unconstitutionally vague, which is presently pending cross-motions for summary judgment. See: Whitaker v. Perdue, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Georgia), Case No. 4:06-cv-00140-CC.

According to the complaint in Whitaker, which was filed by the ACLU of Georgia and the Southern Center for Human Rights, “Thousands of people on Georgia’s sex offender registry will be forced to evacuate their homes, leave their jobs, cease attending church services, and be required, by legislative fiat, to abandon court-mandated treatment programs.”

Now, following the recent statutory revisions, even law enforcement officials are perplexed about the state’s sex offender laws. “Our deputies are trying their best to enforce this law,” said Tonia Welch, training coordinator for the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. “And the way the changes have been, it has caused confusion. Every time they got situated, the laws change, and then they have to shift gears.”

The revised statute, which was signed into law in May 2010 by Governor Sonny Perdue, allows the 13,000-plus registered sex offenders who committed their offences before June 2003 to live wherever they want. That date was selected because it is when Georgia’s first sex offender residency law became effective.

Sex offender restrictions after that date vary depending on when the offense was committed. Offenders who committed their crimes from June 4, 2003 to June 30, 2006 can live near a church or swimming pool, but those convicted after July 1, 2006 are barred from residing within a 1,000-foot radius of those facilities.

Georgia’s revised sex offender law eases other restrictions. It allows some offenders to petition to be removed from the state’s sex offender registry, and exempts the disabled and elderly from the residency requirements. Further, sex offenders are no longer required to provide their Internet passwords to state officials.

While at least five other states have tightened their sex offender residency restrictions, Iowa joined Georgia in easing up a bit. Prompted by lobbying from the Iowa County Attorney’s Association, state legislators reduced a 2,000-foot sex offender exclusion zone around schools and other areas. That restriction still applies for the highest-level offenders, such as those who committed crimes involving a child, and a 300-foot “no loiter” zone applies to all sex offenders.

“It’s better than what we had, but it still fosters a false sense of security,” said the association’s executive director, Corwin Ritchie. “It does target the predator-type, who might be sitting within sight of a school, but we have so many sex offenses going on within people’s homes, we forget those types of victims.”

Also forgotten are the hazards inherent in ostracizing sex offenders after they complete their prison sentences. Research shows that lack of social support, unemployment and housing instability are the greatest contributing factors to whether released prisoners re-offend. When restrictions are placed on sex offenders that make it harder for them to reintegrate into society, the risk of recidivism increases.

Residency restrictions for sex offenders have been controversial since their inception. “It’s something states are still struggling with,” said Jill Levenson, a Lynn University professor who specializes in sex offender policies. “One side argues the laws aren’t punitive, but the other side of the argument is that once people enter into a plea and agree to something, you can’t come back years later and change it.”

Another problem is that some defendants accused of sex-related crimes do not realize the long-term consequences of pleading guilty, which may subject them to registration requirements and residency restrictions for the rest of their lives.

Several states, such as Florida, continue to experience difficulties with their sex offender residency restrictions, including creating a population of homeless sex offenders that is hard to monitor. [See related article in this issue of PLN].

Sources: Associated Press, Atlanta Journal Constitution

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