Four nearly four years, we’ve been bashing Georgia’s current sex-offender law as draconian; practically unenforceable; counter-productive; and patently unfair under any yardstick you care to use. (For more details, check out my July 2006 cover story.)
Since then, various courts — both federal and state, including the Georgia Supreme Court — have blocked or stuck down portions of the law as unconstitutional, such as a measure to prohibit registered sex offenders from living near school bus stops and a provision that criminalized homelessness.
And yet, the law’s most destructive aspect has been left unchanged: that it provides for no meaningful distinction between a serial child molester and a teen convicted of having sex with an underage girlfriend (or boyfriend). In some baffling cases, people convicted of non-sex-related crimes have ended up on the registry, where they have to meet the same requirements as rapists.
In addition, the law doesn’t allow judges to decide whether a particular offender poses a legitimate threat to the community, even if he’s an 80-year-old former peeping tom who’s confined to a wheelchair.
All of this appears about to change. Before the current legislative session began, new-elected House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, took up the reform of the sex-offender law as his personal cause. As the former chairman of the House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee, Ralston was well aware of the law’s shortcomings and his House Bill 571 represents a near-total overhaul.
Over the past few weeks, Ralston’s bill has only gotten stronger, thanks to sensible tweaks and amendments. The version that passed the House on Tuesday on a 165-1 vote (yes, the one naysayer was Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Nutjob) would mark a return to sanity for Georgia.
Among HB 571’s many fixes:
- Judges would have the discretion to exempt some registered sex offenders from restrictions on where they’re allowed to work.
- Sex offenders would no longer be forced from their homes or apartments if a park or daycare opened nearby.
- Sex offenders would no longer be prohibited from taking part in such church activities as choir and Bible study.
- Homeless sex offenders would no longer risk prison for failing to have a fixed address.
- Sex offenders could petition to be released from the registry if their conviction was for a non-sexual crime; if they were determined to be of low risk to the public; or if they’ve successfully completed their sentence.
- The punishment for failing to register an address would be reduced from a mandatory 10-year prison term to one year for first-time offenders.
- One could no longer be added to the sex-offender registry for a misdemeanor.
And so forth. As we said, the bill has already passed the House with no real opposition, so what could go wrong now? Well, HB 571 next goes to Senate Judiciary, whose chairman, Sen. Preston Smith, has been on a law-and-order tear this session. Also, with Speaker Ralston as its author, the bill would make for a no-brainer bargaining chip if the Senate wanted to apply leverage on the House for some reason.
Are we implying that a reasonable and overdue piece of legislation stands a chance of being derailed for crass political motives? Say it ain’t so!