Georgia lawmakers try to revise offender law

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Whitehead

ATLANTA - With a federal lawsuit still hanging over last year's sweeping sex offender crackdown, Georgia lawmakers will begin debating a bill that tries to address concerns about the law.

Senate Bill 249 would allow sheriffs to keep closer tabs on offenders by making them register with law enforcement officials in the counties where they work or go to school instead of just where they live.

Sen. Jim Whitehead, R-Evans, introduced the bill as legislators began a break. He said he filed the proposed changes on behalf of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, which represents the 159 county-elected sheriffs in the state.

There are currently more than 13,100 registered sex offenders in the state, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation officials.

Last year, the General Assembly passed and Gov. Sonny Perdue signed House Bill 1059. It placed new restrictions on where convicted sex offenders could live and work, increased prison sentences for many sex crimes and required lifetime electronic monitoring of the most dangerous sex predators.

Terry Norris, the executive vice president of the sheriffs' group, said a training conference about the law drew more than 300 deputies with questions about how to enforce some of the law's provisions.

Mr. Whitehead's bill would ease some of the confusion, Mr. Norris said.

The law's stricter requirements on how close offenders could live or work near children stirred up controversy and led to the federal lawsuit.

The law said offenders could not live or "loiter" within 1,000 feet of child-care facilities, schools, churches, school bus stops, parks, playgrounds and swimming pools. They also can't work within 1,000 feet of child-care facilities, schools or churches.

Human rights groups that filed the federal lawsuit argued that 10,000 registered offenders would have to move because of school bus stops.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper last year blocked Columbia County from enforcing the distance rule after the county's school board officially designated its bus stops. After that ruling, other school systems held off on the designations, waiting for the full suit to be heard.

There has been no movement in the case since last winter, said Sara Totonchi, the public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the suit along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

The last motion Judge Cooper ruled on was to lift the 1,000-foot rule from applying to nine unidentified offenders who were elderly or disabled. The decision didn't cover those offenders statewide, but Mr. Whitehead's bill might solve the problem if it's approved this session.

His measure would allow a Superior Court judge to review cases for offenders determined no longer to pose a risk. To be considered for a waiver against moving, the offenders would have to live in hospice or nursing home or be permanently, physically disabled because they were sick or injured. Offenders 75 or older also could avoid moving if at least a decade had passed since they were released from prison or placed on parole or probation.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, said late last week that he had not read Mr. Whitehead's bill nor realized it already had been introduced. He said he has been speaking with sheriffs about their suggestions for the revisions.

"When you start drafting exemptions, you have to be very careful," he said. "I'm certainly open to them as long as it doesn't weaken the intent of the law."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (678) 977-4601 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.

SEX OFFENDER LAW

Proposed changes in Senate Bill 249:

Child-care facilities: Places would have to be licensed by the state to count as part of the 1,000-foot living restriction rule. This would clear up confusion about whether homes where people informally take care of a few children should be included in the 1000-foot rule.

Measuring distance: The 1,000-foot rule would be measured from the offender's door instead of his or her property line to the nearest property line of any off-limits building. This would make it easier for those living in apartment complexes or on large plots of land to be in compliance.

Elderly and disabled offenders: A judge could grant an exemption to offenders if they are living in hospices or nursing homes or are 75 and older and have been out of prison for at least a decade.

Registration in multiple counties: On top of registering in the county where they live, offenders also would have to register with sheriffs in counties where they work or go to school.

Living in cars: Being homeless or having post office boxes already is unacceptable when offenders register their addresses with sheriffs. The bill also would not allow turning in vehicle information instead of a physical address.

- Morris News Service

TO GET INVOLVED

To express an opinion about the bill, contact its sponsor, Sen. Jim Whitehead, R-Evans, at (404) 656-5114 or jim.whitehead@senate.ga.gov