Georgia has 20,676 registered sex offenders. The new law, passed as HB 571, removes those least likely to commit sex crimes from registration requirements. Additionally, about 13,000 registered sex offenders will no longer have to comply with housing restrictions that prohibit them from living within 1,000 feet of a church, school, park or other place where children gather. Previously, the law was applied retroactively to offenders who committed crimes before the statute’s original enactment date of June 4, 2003.
Further, disabled and elderly sex offenders may be exempt from residency restrictions, and sex offenders will not have to provide law enforcement officials with their Internet passwords.
Legislators moved to change the state’s sex offender law due to setbacks from court challenges [see: PLN, March 2011, p.28; June 2008, p.40], and because the harsh requirements had resulted in extreme situations such as homeless sex offenders living in outdoor camps. [See: PLN, May 2010, p.20]. Further, law enforcement officials and lawmakers agreed that sheriff’s departments were unnecessarily monitoring low-level offenders.
For example, Omar Howard, 37, had never been convicted of a sex crime but was required under the prior law to register as a sex offender. As an 18-year-old, Howard broke into a house to rob it in 1993. He was charged with false imprisonment of a minor when he ordered a young boy inside the home to lie on the ground. Under the old law he was classified as a sex offender.
“The former law suffered from a defect of diluting the registry with people like Howard who are not what we typically thought of as [sex] offenders,” said Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights. “A more tailored registry permits law enforcement officers to focus limited resources on people who commit serious sexual offenses.”
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter praised the change in the law. “We ought to be worried more about predators and less about people that got caught in cars when they were 16,” he said.
So-called “Romeo and Juliet” statutory rape offenses that involved teenagers close in age were previously classified as misdemeanors that required sex offender registration. The new law provides that upon completion of their sentences, people convicted of such crimes will be automatically removed from the registry. It also includes a “safety valve” that allows a superior court judge to release certain offenders from registration requirements.
The revised law permits a sex offender to petition the court for removal from the registry if he or she is a “level 1” or low-risk offender and has completed all prison, parole, supervised release or probation requirements; if the crime they committed became punishable as a misdemeanor after July 2006; or if ten years have elapsed since completion of prison, parole, supervised release or probation requirements for offenders convicted of more serious crimes.
When such a petition is filed, district attorneys and sheriff’s offices are given notice and an opportunity to object. The court then holds a hearing to decide whether the offender should be removed from the registry. Page Pate, an Atlanta attorney who has filed several petitions, said judges typically deny the petitions when there is an objection.
Between July 1, 2010 when the new law went into effect and October 30, 2011, 442 people were removed from Georgia’s sex offender registry as a result of the statutory change. Of those, 146 were first-time offenders who had completed their sentences, while 136 were removed by a judge’s order and 160 had been convicted of misdemeanor charges that no longer required registration.
Howard said he was thankful he no longer has the stigma of being labeled a sex offender. “People, when they hear sex offense, they automatically think pedophile,” he remarked. “They don’t necessarily think of guys who had a situation like mine.”
Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Associated Press
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