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Sex offender law would strain local enforcement
Some criticize unintended consequences, 'draconian' measures

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

If a house bill further restricting registered sex offenders is passed in the state senate and signed into law, Henry County Sheriff's Lt. Scott Perry will do his best to enforce it.

It will be really hard to enforce it, he said, but he and the two other deputies who track registered sex offenders in Henry County will do their best.

"We're doing the best we can," the lieutenant said, "but we're treading water. We're treading water ... We'll just have to deal with it and do the best we can."

The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Steve Davis (R-McDonough), will ban sexual offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of any place children are known to gather. A similar law was put into effect in the summer of 2006, but was later struck down by the courts. The new bill, Davis said, restores some of the restrictions that were struck from the 2006 law, but the language and details have been adjusted to appease the court.

"It was just cleaning up their over-intrusive decision," he said. "It's a good bill. It's a bill that protects our children."

It's also a bill, Perry worries, that overburdens under-funded sheriff's offices and serves to move the offenders around in unintended ways.

"It takes too much time and manpower," Perry said. "When the law took effect [in 2006], we had them moving in from Fulton and DeKalb and Clayton. What this law is going to do is push people out of the more populated areas and into the rural areas. That's what it's going to do, is push these sex offenders into areas where the sheriff's department doesn't have the resources to deal with them."

More densely populated counties, like Clayton, found their sex offender tracking units overwhelmed, when the law took effect, and found themselves in a problematic position. In the Clayton County Sheriff's Office, that summer, the map showing where registered offenders couldn't live dramatically changed. Before the law, a limited number of restricted areas were highlighted in yellow. After the law, the entire map was yellow.

The deputies were not allowed to tell the offenders where they could live -- for fear they would be accused of placing sexual offenders in a particular neighborhood -- and were reduced to simply, repeatedly telling offenders, "No, you can't live there."

The end result of the 1,000-feet rule, Psychologist James E. Stark claims, is that the sex offenders simply stop registering.

"We need to know where these people are," said Stark, director of a metro-area clinic which evaluates and treats sexual abusers and the sexually abused. "We don't need to drive people underground, and if we pass laws that are so draconian, we're going to drive people underground."

Even existing laws, when combined with public advocacy groups known for trying to drive sex offenders out of their homes, have already pushed the offender population into a sort of hidden existence.

"We seem more willing to accept murders back into society than sexual offenders, even if that person was caught trying to peep into a window," Stark said. "There ought to be some talk about redemption and something that can give the sex offenders hope of being better. They're being treated as lepers, and they will tell you that they've learned to stay holed up in their rooms and they get chased from place to place."

To Davis, though, Stark is just one of those people who are trying to protect the rights of child molesters.

"I do not feel sorry for them," the McDonough Republican said. "We're not the criminals, they are. There are consequences to the things they've done ... We're trying to protect our children."

Stark said it is not clear, however, that the 1,000-rule protects anyone. In the 21 states which have enacted residency restrictions, like the one which just passed the house by a vote of 141-29, there is no evidence that the public was more safe, he said. The law's primary purpose, according to Stark, isn't actually protecting people, but just making them feel safer.

"It's just a measure to pacify the public. The public is afraid and this will give them something to be afraid of and make them feel a little better," Stark said.

At the sheriff's office in Henry County, Perry doesn't doubt the good intentions of the politicians passing these laws. Where Stark sees demagoguery and fear mongering, Perry sees people trying to make things safer for the citizens of Georgia, he just wishes they were a little more practical in their approach.

"I think their intent is to make it safer and it has made it safer, but they need to tweak it," the lieutenant said. "My personal opinion is that some of them on the registration -- you go back to Genarlow Wilson [the teen who was imprisoned for a consensual sex act with an underage girl] -- you're putting them all in the same category as child molesters. There needs to be types or levels."

Currently the state has a system for classifying sex offenders, Perry said, but only those about to be released from prison are being classified. When he and the other deputies go to check up on a registered offender, they're treating someone who publicly exposed himself and someone who peeped into a window in the same way they're treating someone who raped a dozen children. The law makes no distinction, for the vast majority of registered offenders, between those who did something wrong and those who are likely to be a danger to the community.

In a presentation to a state house committee, on the recently passed house bill, Stark recommended the legislature, to truly make people safer, start by classifying offenders. The 2006 law created a panel to classify offenders, but it hasn't been funded and only a few cases have been reviewed.

"There are some offenders who are God-awful abusers and killers who are abusing people and chopping them up and, my God, those people need to be put away forever," Stark said. "But way over 90 percent of these people can be law abiding citizens ... 95 percent of the state's 15,000 registered sex offenders are low risk or moderate risk. We need to be doing different things at those different levels of risk."

Davis said that while the current bill goes a long way in protecting children, he doesn't disagree that more needs to be done. He doesn't disagree, he said, that the state needs a comprehensive classification system.

"There's no law we can write that completely puts a force field around the people of Georgia," he said. "I support the stronger classifications ... We will continue and we're doing the very best we can."