Tuesday, November 25, 2008

GA High Court Strikes Down Sex Offender Law

Atlanta Journal Constitution: Court strikes down life sentence for sex offender:
Prison term imposed after he failed for second time to register as sex offender

The Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down another provision of the state’s tough sex-offender law, calling mandatory life sentences for offenders who fail to register a second time “grossly disproportionate” punishment.

In a 6-1 decision, written by Justice Robert Benham, the court said the life sentence imposed upon 26-year-old Cedric Bradshaw of Statesboro violates the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.

“We conclude the imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment is so harsh in comparison to the crime for which it was imposed that it is unconstitutional,” Benham wrote.

Georgia’s sex-offender law has been under legal attack on a number of fronts. It requires offenders to register their addresses within 72 hours after release and makes it a crime for them to live within 1,000 feet of places children congregate.

His lawyer, circuit public defender Robert Persse, applauded the ruling. “The state’s penalty provision was excessive and clearly disproportionate to the offense in question,” he said.

After getting out, Bradshaw registered as required and moved in with his sister. But he was forced to leave because her home was within 1,000 feet of a children’s recreation center. He properly registered again and moved in with his aunt. But he had to move once more because she lived near a church.
Bradshaw then registered a family friend’s trailer but gave an incorrect address and never moved in. Last December, he was convicted of the second offense and sentenced to life.

In his ruling, Benham noted that someone convicted of voluntary manslaughter or aggravated assault with the intent to murder, rob or rape can receive a sentence as lenient as one year. “Georgia’s mandatory punishment of life imprisonment is the clear outlier, providing the harshest penalty and providing no sentencing discretion,” Benham wrote. “This gross disparity between Georgia’s sentencing scheme and those of the other states reinforces the inference that [Bradshaw’s] crime and sentence are grossly disproportionate.”

Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, in a concurring opinion, said life sentences “should be reserved for society’s most serious criminal offenders … Bradshaw’s failure to register as a sex offender, when his underlying crime only landed him in jail for five years, is not the kind of crime a civilized society ought to require him to pay for with his life.”

The ruling is the latest setback for the sex-offender law.

A year ago, the court ruled in favor of a Clayton County homeowner, saying it would be an “illegal taking” if he were forced to abandon his home after a day care center was built nearby. The ruling prompted the Legislature to amend the law. Two months ago, the court struck down as vague another provision, saying it gave no clear direction to offenders who are homeless and cannot register a route or street address.

Still pending is a federal lawsuit attacking the law’s provisions that make it a crime for sex offenders to live or work within 1,000 feet of places children congregate. On Monday, a judge allowed the lead plaintiff, Wendy Whitaker, to remain in her home outside of Augusta while her lawsuit makes its way through court.