Let’s be clear – I dislike sex offenders, especially those who commit sex offenses against minors, as much as any member of the Georgia General Assembly. Those who commit such heinous acts as soliciting minors for sexual prostitution, should be prosecuted and punished severely, as Georgia law has for many years provided.
But let’s be equally clear – passing legislation piling on endless restrictions and burdens on those who already have served prison terms and who remain subject to extensive monitoring, is neither responsible nor effective. Yet that’s what the Georgia General Assembly has continued to do.
The Georgia Supreme Court in late 2007 declared unconstitutional a 2006 state law prohibiting registered sex offenders from residing within 1,000 feet of a school, church, day care center, school bus stop, or anywhere else “where minors congregate.” Undaunted, Georgia legislators continue to enact — and require local law enforcement officials to enforce — laws making it virtually impossible for persons convicted of sex offenses involving minors to reside in the state.
Most recently, a small number of persons who are required to register as sex offenders with the local sheriff (in this case, Cobb County), and who find it impossible to rent or purchase a home anywhere that does not run afoul of the restrictions on where they can live, have taken to pitching tents in certain park areas. Not surprisingly, since there are ordinances prohibiting people from living in tents on government-owned park lands, Sheriff’s officers are properly making them leave.
Clearly, Georgia laws dealing with sex offenders need to be amended to ensure they comply with fundamental constitutional guarantees such as due process and equal protection. Regrettably, this has proved extremely difficult. Many legislators are unwilling or unable to withstand the criticism that in thus amending the laws, they are “coddling child molesters.”
In fact, addressing both federal and state constitutional issues in amending Georgia’s laws in this area is not hard. However, the effort must properly focus on tough, but reasonable restrictions; and not degenerate into a game of one-upsmanship by legislators trying to prove they can be harder on offenders than the next person.
Several provisions in the current state laws clearly are ripe for modification.
Forcing sex registrants to avoid living within 1,000 feet of “any area where minors congregate” creates a condition virtually impossible for anyone to meet. Minors can – and often do – “congregate” in areas their parents and others least expect them to do so. A house, an apartment, or a parking lot may be free from such “congregating” one day, but might the very next day become a magnet for teens hanging out. Considering that the law already prohibits sex offender registrants from living near schools, day care centers and churches – and requires frequent reporting of their whereabouts to law enforcement — this additional broad restriction is hardly essential.
Another reasonable – and necessary – change the legislature should make (and which later court decisions will likely force it to make), is to tighten the language regarding what sort of conviction triggers the reporting, residency and employment requirements for convicted sex offenders. The current law includes anyone who has been convicted of any state or federal offense “which, by its nature, is a sexual offense against a minor.” Exactly what sort of activity is covered by that language is unclear, considering that all manner of sex offenses involving minors are already specified in the very same section. The constitutional infirmity of a statute being “void for vagueness” perhaps should be included as required reading for state legislators.
Enacting laws that protect society against sexual predators that at the same time satisfy constitutional requirements that have been around since 1791 when the Bill of Rights was adopted, does not require knowledge of rocket science. It does require a sense of fairness and realism that unfortunately often appears lacking in our state legislature.