Bill targets sex offenders

By Ed Brock

Under Georgia law people have a right to know if a convicted sex offender is living in their area. But one Clayton County legislator says there's a loophole in that law and he wants to close it.

But at least two local defense attorneys question both the wording and the intent of the bill, one calling it an attempt to pander to public opinion.

Georgia House of Representatives Bill No. 1093 would insert this phrase into Georgia Code Section 16-6-4: "No person convicted of the offense of child molestation shall be sentenced as a first offender pursuant to Article 3 of Chapter 8 of Title 42, relating to probation of first offenders."

The reason for the proposed change is that once first-offender status is granted, the offender is not required to put his name on the state's registry of convicted sex offenders, said the sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Victor Hill, D-College Park.

Hill also said that an employment background check would not turn up a record of the crime, as in a case about one such offender that he cited as one of his motivations for drafting the law.

"He got a job in the school system and started molesting children again," Hill said. "A child molester can fly in under the radar and move right next-door to you."

Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller shared the spirit of the bill.

"This is something that prosecutors feel, that people who commit these crimes need to be on that list," Keller said. "There have been times when we would not recommend first-offender status unless they agree to be on the sex-offender list."

One problem with requiring sex offenders who are granted first-offender status to be included on the registry is that they are technically not pleading guilty to the crime, Keller said, and so some defense attorneys have called it an unfair penalty.

The wording of the bill struck a sour note with Jonesboro criminal defense attorney Steve Frey. A vast majority of cases in which first-offender status is granted come about through plea bargains, so the person is not considered to be convicted.

"For anyone who uses the word convicted and then first offender, and who knows the meaning of the terms, is purposefully misleading his audience," Frey said. "I just simply do not believe that there is any instance where someone has been convicted in the Superior Court of Clayton County, where a jury returned a verdict of guilty, and that person was allowed to serve it under first-offender probation."

And apart from the wording of the bill, Frey said there are legitimate instances in which first-offender status should be granted to someone accused of a sex crime.

"A lot of times these allegations of sex abuse are made by one parent against another in a divorce, which definitely calls into question the credibility of witnesses," Frey said.

Frey said he does not know what information Hill is relying on for his position, but he thinks that to propose such legislation "simply to appease the public or stir the emotions of the public is wrong."

He doesn't take allegations of sexual offenses lightly, Frey said, and he thinks those found guilty of the crimes should be dealt with strictly and severely.

But at the same time the bill would strip some people accused of such crimes of a legitimate legal option, said Frey. It would also hinder the courts' ability to render true justice, Stockbridge defense attorney Ricky Morris said.

"(Hill) is taking the discretion away from trial judges who are sitting in the courtroom hearing the facts of the case," Morris said.

Hill said the bill is still in committee and the wording may be changed. He also said that not every district attorney would necessarily follow Keller's policy of requiring first-offender sex offenders to register and the crime is too important to be treated lightly.

"Child molestation is not shoplifting," Hill said. "You don't make a mistake and molest somebody's child. Ultimately what we're looking at is protecting Georgia's children and families."