Originally created 07/04/97

Castration skeptics speak



SAVANNAH - Some judges and prosecutors are taking a skeptical view of the new law that allows "chemical castration" as part of the punishment for molesting a child.

"We don't know the extent to which (the chemical) works. Nor do we know the side effects experienced by the person receiving it," Chatham County District Attorney Spencer Lawton Jr. said. "I think our approach will have to be cautious and taken on a case-by-case basis."

As of July 1, the state's judges can - with a defendant's consent - require chemical castration and mental-health counseling for sex offenders who prey on children.

A first conviction for child molesting would carry a 10- to 30-year prison sentence, with the castration and counseling included as part of the probation after release, not as a substitute for prison.

"It's not even really intended as a punishment," said state Rep. George Grindley, R-Marietta, who introduced the bill during this year's General Assembly.

"Molesters aren't just criminals; they also have a problem that they can't control," Mr. Grindley said. "I even got a letter from a sex offender in jail for child molestation who said, `Thank you for this common-sense approach."'

Defendants aren't likely to start immediately receiving approval to take medroxyprogesterone acetate, or MDA, the drug used in the castration.

"At this point, I know nothing about the chemical beyond the fact that it's mentioned in this statute," Superior Court Judge Charles Mikell said.

MDA, trademarked under the name Depo-Provera, duplicates a female sex hormone and is used by millions of women as an injected contraception.

When used by men, MDA can reduce testosterone levels to those of a young boy. It can shrink the sex drive, reduce the production of semen fluids and make getting an erection difficult, if not impossible.

While MDA would need to be re-injected every few weeks to remain effective, Georgia's new law is vague as to where sex offenders would receive their shots - at home or at a probation or parole office. It does require the process to begin under state supervision, before the offender's release from prison.

California Gov. Pete Wilson signed his own state's chemical-castration law last year, where it immediately was challenged in the courts. Unlike Georgia's version, California made the procedure mandatory after conviction.

The Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union worked with legislators to ensure that the chemical treatment was an option, not a requirement.

The ACLU also sought - and won - the inclusion of mental-health counseling as part of the process.

"I wouldn't say the ACLU necessarily endorses this law, but we're pleased that the legislators didn't repeat the mistakes made by their counterparts in California," said Georgia ACLU Executive Director Teresa Nelson.

Child advocates warn that quality mental-health counseling will be essential, since several studies indicate that MDA isn't truly effective unless the men taking it want their urges to be reduced.

"To assume that, `OK, we gave him a shot, now everything's going to be fine,' would be a mistake," said Rebecca Zarada, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates, which assists child victims in court cases.

More realistically, "I can't imagine most of the molesters I'm aware of lining up to get their shots," said Kris Rice of the Coastal Children's Advocacy Center in Savannah.

"We see a lot of kids molested with things other than penises," Ms. Rice said. "Molesters use their fingers and mouths, too. Just because you can't get an erection, or you're slow to get an erection, doesn't mean you can't molest someone."