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Safety package passes Senate

By Ed Brock

A trio of bills that recently unanimously passed the Georgia Senate would broaden the use of technology in law enforcement and would establish statewide protocols for gathering evidence in sexual assault cases.

The bills, sponsored by different senators, were passed Monday and are dubbed Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor's public safety package because Taylor pushed for their creation.

One of three bills in the package, Bill No. 457, would establish uniform statewide response protocol for investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults. It would also clear the way for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) to testify as expert witnesses in court by allowing them to disclose confidential information in court.

Bill No. 469 would allow judges to require convicted sex offenders released on probation to wear a Global Positioning Device to prevent them from going to prohibited areas.

The third bill, No. 482 would allow for the collection of DNA samples from prisoners who are still incarcerated so that DNA can be added to a national database used to determine connections to other crimes.

"Protecting Georgians is one of our most important tasks we face here in the Senate. Today I am proud of the Georgia Senate for standing up for victims of sexual assault and for passing strong laws that keep child molesters away from children," Taylor said after the Senate passed the bills.

Bill 457 rose out of the findings of a special commission formed last year to examine community responses to sexual assault.

"Wherever the commission met, we were struck by the need for a coordinated, planned response to sexual assault offenses and the great difference a multi-disciplined, community-based program could make to victims," said State Sen. Faye Smith, D-Milledgeville, the bill's sponsor.

That part of the package struck a positive note with Jennifer Bivins, director of the Southern Crescent Sexual Assault Center.

"I'm definitely in support of this bill," Bivens said.

Under the bill the chief superior court judge in each judicial circuit would establish a sexual assault protocol committee for their circuit. It would be comprised of representatives from the sheriff's office, police department (of the county where applicable or of the largest municipality within the county,) district attorney's office, magistrate court and the board of health of each county in the judicial circuit.

"My understanding is that the teeth of this is it will be overseen by a superior court judge and you will be held in contempt if these protocols our not in place," Bivins said.

It would also bring the handling of sexual abuse against adults up to par with the way child sexual abuse cases are covered under the state protocols for child abuse, Bivins said.

"We're all about the kids, and that's great, but we have adults that are being left behind," Bivins said.

New protocols aren't necessary, at least in Clayton County, said Jonesboro defense attorney Steve Frey. Investigators here are already highly competent.

Currently Clayton County does not have a SANE group.

"SANE is an awesome program," Bivins said. "I'm hoping we can come together as a community to get SANE."

Sen. Nathan Dean, D-Rockmart, sponsored Bill 469 that would add the required wearing of a GPS device to the possible restrictions on paroled child molesters.

"Child molesters are among the highest repeat offenders. Tracking with a global positioning system provides an additional incentive to comply with restrictions on behavior," Dean said.

Restricted areas could include places frequented by the victim of the crime or anywhere where minors congregate, such as a school. The bill does not define the exact type of device that would be attached to paroled child molesters but states that, unless the molester is indigent, the parolee would be fined for the cost of the monitoring within regulated limits.

The use of a GPS device wouldn't solve all problems with preventing recidivism among child molesters, Frey said, but it is an option.

"Sometimes people are sent to the penitentiary because there is no assurance of compliance with the terms of their probation," Frey said. "This device could provide the court with some assurance that there is compliance."

Bill 482, sponsored by Sen. Rene Kemp, D-Hinesville, would eliminate the existing phrasing of the current law that requires Georgia convicts to provide DNA samples for the database upon their release, allowing the samples to be gathered from active inmates. The bill was made with death row inmates in mind, said Taylor's spokeswoman Kristi Huller.

"Obviously death row inmates are not expected to be released," Huller said.

The DNA database was created in 2000, at Taylor's insistence, and in cases in which law enforcement has DNA samples but no leads on a suspect the information from the database can be used to point to a suspect. Since its creation the database has helped to solve 285 previously unsolved crimes in Georgia, most of which were cases of sexual assault.

Taylor's public safety package has the support of State Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, part of the Clayton County legislative delegation.

"It will go a very long way for caring for those victims (of sexual assault," Buckner said.

As for the bills' chances in the House, Buckner said that there are more members than the Senate and therefore more opinions.

"I feel confident that all the bills will pass but I think there will be some exciting debate," Buckner said.