Senate OKs relaxing parts of strict sex offender law

ATLANTA --- Georgia legislators are seeking to soften some of the toughest rules in Georgia's crackdown on sex offenders.

The Senate voted 52-2 on Tuesday to make sweeping changes to the law that imposes a range of restrictions on where Georgia's 16,000 sex offenders can live, work and spend time. The plan now goes to the House, where Republican legislators pushed the law through three years ago.

Since then, it has been peppered with state and federal lawsuits, and the courts have struck down several provisions. Although the new proposal doesn't address all the critics, some of the fiercest opponents have thrown their support behind the changes.

The main part of the law bans sex offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of just about anywhere children gather. That includes schools, parks, gyms, swimming pools and the state's 150,000 school bus stops.

The law, which supporters say is among the nation's toughest, was passed in 2006 at the urging of Republican leaders who vowed it will help protect Georgia's children and prevent the state from becoming a "safe haven" for sex offenders.

One change would allow "low-risk offenders," such as those convicted of statutory rape, to petition the legal system to get off the registry after completing their sentence. The law had previously been criticized by judges for treating all sex offenders the same.

The Senate proposal would also clear the way for most sex offenders to volunteer in churches, the subject of a federal lawsuit that claimed the ban on the practice violated free speech rights.

Sex offenders who are elderly and disabled could ask the courts to be released from the residency requirements under the proposal. And it would allow the homeless to identify the place they sleep using a street address or other description after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled last year that it fails to tell homeless offenders how they can comply.

The proposal also reverses a provision that required offenders to hand over online passwords when submitting e-mail addresses and user names.