Originally created 08/08/06

Sponsor denounces challenge by lawsuit



ATLANTA - The sponsor of the state's new restrictions on sexual offenders lashed out Monday at a challenge to the law playing out in federal court.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, blasted a lawsuit by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. The groups argue that a provision barring the state's 12,000 registered offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a designated school bus stop made it impossible for those people to find a home.

Mr. Keen said during a news conference Monday that he would rather err on the side of inconveniencing some people than to leaving a child at risk.

"Final analysis: (If) the other side is right, and we're wrong, some people probably have to move that shouldn't," he said. "But if the General Assembly is right, and the Southern Center is wrong, young people's lives are in danger. And some child somewhere is going to be the victim."

For now, the situation is in a legal limbo until the suit is tried in court.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ruled sheriffs couldn't start evicting registered sex offenders living too close to bus stops unless local school boards had formally designated their bus stops. Within hours, the board in Columbia County made a formal designation, prompting Judge Cooper to halt enforcement in that county after a temporary restraining order was sought.

Other school boards are delaying formal designation until the trial on the lawsuit is concluded. No date has been set for the trial.

Mr. Keen said it's unnecessary to require a new, formal declaration by local school boards that already have scheduled bus routes, many of which begin operation this week or next.

"We didn't just make up 'designated school bus stops as designated by the local school board,'" he said. "It is in the Georgia Code right now."

He said most districts likely have a list of stops somewhere that's provided to bus drivers.

"Somebody gave them a map or a roster or something that said ... 'These are your school bus stops; go here and pick (children) up,'" he said.

Lisa Kung, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said many sheriffs, school boards and newspaper editorial pages have concluded that the bus-stop provision is more trouble to enforce than it's worth. Trying to keep track of the addresses of so many registered offenders would overwhelm most police agencies, she said.

A better way to increase children's safety, Ms. Kung said, would be to target a smaller number of high-risk offenders. The new law requires the state to identify and classify current inmates by risk level, but not those already released.

If it's nearly impossible to enforce the law, then it won't be enforced, as a practical matter, Ms. Kung said. So all that will be accomplished is registered offenders will move from their known addresses and possibly get lost in the confusion.