ATLANTA - In trying to craft harsher laws for sex offenders in Georgia, House Majority Leader Jerry Keen has tweaked parts of his original proposal, but the heart of the bill remains intact and ready to be introduced when the Legislature convenes.
Mr. Keen's bill creates longer minimum sentences for most sex crimes, increases information requirements for registered sex offenders and allows for lifetime monitoring of the most dangerous ex-prisoners. After months of working on his first draft, Mr. Keen decided to give prosecutors more discretion on sentencing and remove a harsher penalty for charges of indecent behavior.
"I know this is a difficult subject," Mr. Keen, R-St. Simons Island, told members of a House judiciary committee Thursday. "We're moving toward a very good bill."
Mr. Keen's bill seeks to raise minimum prison sentences for crimes such as rape, aggravated child molestation and enticing a child for indecent purposes.
For many of the charges, if the victims are younger than 14, sentences would range from 25 to 50 years.
The bill would also require at least a year of probation for sex offenders after their prison sentences are up.
If approved, the new sentences would apply to people convicted after the middle of next year.
Mr. Keen's bill also creates a new felony crime for people who help a convicted sex offender lie to authorities about where they are living and gets rid of lighter sentences for first-time offenders.
Convicted sex offenders would have to report to a special board before they are released to find out whether they deserve to be labeled dangerous predators and monitored electronically for the rest of their lives.
Even lower-risk offenders would no longer be able to work within 1,000 feet of places where children tend to be, such as schools and parks. Current state law includes a similar distance requirement limiting where sex offenders can live, but the proposal adds workplace considerations, churches and bus stops to the list of prohibited spots.
After first pitching his measure in September, Mr. Keen has since talked with law enforcement officials, district attorneys, concerned parents and treatment professionals.
In responding to some of the concerns, Mr. Keen changed the drafted bill to give prosecutors some leeway on the mandatory minimum sentences. The updated version states that a prosecutor can ask for the sentence be suspended or for probation instead, but only if the victim agrees.
Though several members of the House committee voiced support Thursday for the stricter laws, some raised questions about specifics, foreshadowing what is expected to be a heavily debated issue during the session.
"I'm sure there will probably be significant costs," said Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, D-Riverdale, who expressed concern that the distance requirements will affect a released offender's ability to apply for work.
Mr. Keen said it is impossible to calculate now what the impact on prison costs will be for people who start serving the minimum 25-year sentences.
"These are the threat to the youngest of children," he said. "If we need to build a new prison, then we need to build it."
Joe Bryant, the chairman of the state's Sexual Offender Registration Review Board, warned that the state will need to increase the group's staffing levels and budget if it is to start screening all sex offenders before they are released from prison to see whether they should be considered predators, as the proposal mandates.
"We've been funded on a shoestring," Mr. Bryant said about the current board, which now has the equivalent of fewer than two full-time workers.
Kim Muns, a parent from the Augusta area whose son was convicted on statutory rape charges last year, also spoke to the committee with her concerns that the new law does not do enough to clarify rules for teens, either with the statutory rape definitions or sodomy laws that currently can include oral sex.
"I am very concerned about our juveniles being put up into this, being labeled as sexual predators," she said. "I am very concerned about the word 'sodomy' and what goes on right now today between our teens. There needs to clearly be education."
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