Sex offender bill has new foes

ATLANTA --- The Georgia Legislature's second attempt to create state restrictions on registered sex offenders after last year's judicial ruling against the first try has drawn some unlikely opposition.

A band of organizations aimed at ending sexual assaults against women and children has joined the opposition to the restrictions. Senate Bill 1, which awaits Gov. Sonny Perdue's signature, would prohibit registered sex offenders from living, working or volunteering 1,000 feet from schools, churches, child-care facilities and other places children congregate.

Legislative supporters point out the state will have no restrictions in place if the bill does not become law.

The Georgia Supreme Court declared the state's previous restrictions unconstitutional because they denied the property rights of sex offenders who already lived within 1,000 feet from a school when the law took effect. Senate Bill 1 would remedy that provision.

But the groups say the restrictions, though well-intentioned, will only create the illusion of safety and put women and children at even greater risk.

"We can scare people into believing that we are doing something, and that does nothing in my mind but endanger people by luring them into a false sense of security," said Shawn Paul, the president and CEO of the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault, a coalition of sexual assault centers.

Given that 94 percent of sexually abused children were victimized by their parents or other relatives, Mr. Paul said the revised restrictions will offer no real assurance that children are safe from potential sexual abusers.

Moreover, sexual assaults against children overwhelmingly take place in the victim's home, according to 2006 statistics published by the Division of Family and Child Services.

SB 1 began as a way to prohibit registered sex offenders from photographing children for indecent purposes without the parent's consent, a reaction to an incident in the district of bill sponsor Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. The House added the residency and employment restrictions to Mr. Johnson's bill after the House version of the restrictions' bill failed in the Senate.

Mr. Johnson argues it is difficult to predict who will sexually abuse children, so it makes sense to restrict offenders' proximity to children after the crime.

"I don't think you can prevent all child abuse, but (we) can certainly do everything in our power to protect children from known abusers, and that is what this is about," he said.

Mr. Perdue, who has supported tougher laws on sex offenders, has not weighed in on SB 1, spokesman Marshall Guest said.

If he does sign it, critics say the bill's failure to address renters' rights -- and failure to treat differently closely aged teens engaging in consensual sex -- will put it on the fast track for a court challenge.

Wendy Whitaker, a 28-year-old Harlem woman who has registered as a sex offender since 1999 after pleading guilty to having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old boy when she was 17, said the lack of differentiation makes the restriction unfair and a burden for people like her.

"There are people who have killed people and suffered less than I have," she said.

BY THE NUMBERS

Registered sex offenders in Georgia:

AGEMENWOMEN
17 and under60
18-251,17736
26-354,161121
36-454,102140
46-553,40685
56-651,38220
66 and older6552
Totals14,889404

Source: Georgia Bureau of Investigation, as of March 24