Reach, effect still unclear

AIKEN --- The sheriff's office says most of Aiken County's sex offenders live inside cities.

 

But whether a proposed ban on where those people can live or work will apply inside those municipal boundaries hasn't been worked out -- and won't be for several weeks.

County council members are poised to consider the latest version of the ban, which might still leave questions about who would have to move and who could stay where they are.

The latest version, tentatively approved by council members at a committee meeting, would grandfather in current sex offenders and wouldn't make them move if a day care or school moves in after they've established residency.

But it doesn't make it clear whether someone living with relatives would be uprooted if he or she does not own the property.

That's one question that will have to be addressed, Councilwoman LaWana McKenzie said.

She said she hadn't thought of that scenario, and "a lot of real bad sex offenders don't marry, and they might be living with Mama."

That should be addressed Tuesday, she said, when the proposed ban goes to the judicial and public safety committee, made up of three county council members.

That committee has to approve the ban before it goes up for a third and final vote by the entire board, but Ms. McKenzie said she doesn't think that will happen until March at the earliest.

She doesn't know when the ban would go into effect, either. The board could set a date for months in the future, she said, or move for immediate enforcement.

Right now, she said, council members want to make sure the restrictions can withstand legal challenges. A Georgia court ruling that struck down part of that state's law prompted the latest tinkering with Aiken County's ban.

The most recent version of the proposed ban would:

- Prevent new sex offenders from working for or living within 1,000 feet of child-care facilities, churches, schools or parks

- Ban them from loitering within 1,000 feet of where minors congregate

- Grandfather in sex offenders already living in the county

- Allow sex offenders to stay if any of those facilities open up after they've bought property

However, sex offenders who are renting might be forced to move once their lease expires.

The effectiveness of the restrictions depends on whether they are enforced inside the cities, which won't happen unless the cities also adopt the law.

Sheriff Michael Hunt has said most of Aiken County's 250 registered sex offenders live inside municipal boundaries. His office handles the registry for all of Aiken County, and he has said he doesn't support enforcing a law that affects only unincorporated areas.

Council members have said such a scenario would likely drive sex offenders into the cities to avoid the ban.

Neither North Augusta or the city of Aiken chose to go along with the county's ban against smoking in most public places, citing the legal challenges such laws face.

The city administrators for both cities said last week that until the county comes up with a final version of the sex offender ban, it won't go before their councils.

"As soon as they get that to us, we'll certainly look at that," Aiken City Administrator Roger LeDuc said.

North Augusta City Administrator Sam Bennett said he expects his council to take up the matter in March at the earliest, but until then, "we're really letting things play out with the county."

Ms. McKenzie said that if the state had better classifications for sex offenders -- separating true molesters from those guilty of minor crimes -- "this would not be an issue."

Too often, she said, someone has to register as a sex offender for life for having sex as a teen with someone slightly younger. She knows of people who have been married to their victim for decades, she said.

"If you're a hard-core sex offender, I have no problem saying you shouldn't even be living near people," she said. "But I do have a problem when it is so minor."

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.

BACKGROUND

After Georgia restricted where sex offenders could live, Aiken County Council members became concerned that the ban would drive offenders across the river into South Carolina.

DEVELOPMENTS:

- Aiken officials began hammering out their own restrictions but stopped when the Georgia Supreme Court struck down part of that state's restrictions as "unlawful taking of property."

- Aiken County Council members have retooled their proposed ban to "grandfather in" current sex offenders and allow them to stay where they are if a facility such as a day care or church opens after they've established residency. But they are concerned that the restrictions would not be enforceable inside the county's cities. City leaders would have to adopt the law for it to be uniform across the county.

BACK STORY

After Georgia restricted where sex offenders could live -- including near school bus stops -- Aiken County council members became concerned that the ban would drive offenders across the river.

To stop that, they began hammering out their own restrictions, but stopped when the Georgia Supreme Court struck down part of that state's restrictions as "unlawful taking of property."

Aiken County council members have since retooled their proposed ban to "grandfather in" current sex offenders and allow them to stay where they are if a facility such as a day care or church opens up after they've established residency.

But they are concerned that the restrictions would not be enforceable inside the county's cities. City leaders would have to adopt the law for it to be uniform across the county.

The Aiken County Sheriff's Office says that 15 percent to 20 percent of the 250 registered sex offenders in Aiken County moved from Georgia after its restrictions took effect.