Registry law hits harder

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Laws

A crime that rarely resulted in incarceration in the past now brings long prison sentences.

A bill passed last year by the General Assembly increases the penalty for failure to register as a sex offender. Other provisions of the new law are under legal challenge.

This month, an Augusta man was sentenced to 30 years in prison for not registering a new address within 72 hours of moving.

The Richmond County Superior Court case against Billy Joe Laws was a negotiated plea, said Assistant District Attorney John Markwalter.

Mr. Laws' punishment could have been worse - a life sentence - because it was the second time he had violated a provision of the registry law.

In court documents, Mr. Laws wrote that he didn't register a new address because he didn't have an address - he had lost his home and was living on the streets.

"Many people on the registry are trying very hard to comply," but the new law is making compliance extremely difficult, said Sara J. Totonchi, the public policy director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The Atlanta center filed suit last summer challenging the law's provision that prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of any place where children might gather, including bus stops.

That provision has been blocked by a federal court order, and the lawsuit is pending.

In addition to restricting where sex offenders can live, the new law increases punishment for sex crimes.

It also increases the punishment for failure to register. A first offense that had been a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year in jail is now a felony punishable by 10 to 30 years in prison. Any subsequent offense is punishable by a life sentence.

In Richmond County, the crime rarely resulted in prison sentences; only five of 28 recent convictions netted prison terms.

Mr. Laws, 45, was convicted of aggravated child molestation in 1987 in Baldwin County. He served 18 years in prison.

The first person sentenced in Richmond County under the new law was Ronnie L. White, 22.

He was sentenced to three years in prison and seven years' probation in December.

Mr. White's underlying crime was sexual battery of a 14-year-old girl when he was 18.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.