Start Omhoog

  [Articles & Essays - M] 

Tougher law for sex offenders under fire 

Human rights groups challenge restrictions

By Jill Young Miller, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 06/20/06 

A class action lawsuit on behalf of Georgia's more than 10,000 registered sex offenders is expected to be filed today in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit challenges sweeping sex offender legislation the state's General Assembly approved this spring and that is set to take effect July 1.

Because of new restrictions that it would impose on where sex offenders can live, work and loiter, the law's "result will be catastrophic," according to a copy of the lawsuit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained Monday.

"Thousands of people on Georgia's sex offender registry will be forced to evacuate their homes, leave their jobs, cease attending church services, and be required, by legislative fiat, to abandon court-mandated treatment programs," the lawsuit says.

The Southern Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia are bringing the lawsuit on behalf of everyone on the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's sex offender registry. As of Monday, 10,755 registered sex offenders were living in Georgia, with 1,932 of them incarcerated, according to the GBI.

On Monday, House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island) said he remained proud of the sex offender legislation, which he sponsored. 

"I am confident that it will stand the scrutiny of judicial review at the highest level," he said.

"We knew when we drafted this law that we were casting the net fairly wide. But we put the safety of children in this state above the inconvenience of convicted sex offenders."

The lawsuit will be filed this morning in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, in Rome, said Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer at the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit law firm in Atlanta that represents prisoners.

It specifically asks the court to halt enforcement of provisions that would ban registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of school bus stops across Georgia. The new law 

"essentially banishes everyone on the registry from the state of Georgia," Geraghty said in an interview Monday. "There are literally hundreds of thousands of school bus stops in Georgia."

The suit also seeks an injunction on banning sex offenders from living or loitering within 1,000 feet of a place of religious worship, saying the legislation 

"impermissibly bars people on the registry from living at faith-based halfway houses and chills religious participation in violation of federal constitutional and statutory law."

Any sex offender who knowingly violates the law's restrictions faces at least 10 years in prison.

The named defendants are Gov. Sonny Perdue, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and law enforcement officials in Polk County, where two of the named plaintiffs live.

The defendants had not yet seen the lawsuit Monday. But Heather Hedrick, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said in a written statement: 

"While the ACLU is concerned with the inconvenience to sex offenders of having to move away from schools and playgrounds, the rest of the state of Georgia is more concerned about protecting kids from sexual predators. Georgia will vigorously defend our efforts to keep dangerous criminals away from Georgia's children."

The named plaintiffs include eight people on the registry who "live law-abiding lives as productive members of the community," according to the lawsuit. One is Lori Sue Collins, 44, who until recently lived in Rockdale County at a faith-based halfway house for people recently released from prison, according to the lawsuit. In 2002, she was convicted of statutory rape for having consensual sex with a 15-year-old boy, the lawsuit says. Collins served three years in prison.

This June, she got a letter from the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office telling her she'd have to leave the halfway house because a school bus stop is within 1,000 feet of it. She searched Rockdale, Hall, Barrow, Newton and Henry counties for a place to live that would conform to the new law's requirements, but she came up empty, according to the lawsuit.

Last week, Collins found a temporary home at a residential ministry in Polk County. Her probation officer told her it's not within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop. He told her, however, that that may change when school bus routes are assigned for the coming school year.

"It's actually pretty scary," Collins said Monday.

The lawsuit points out that the bill applies to everyone on the sex offender registry without exception. Joseph Linaweaver, 22, of Columbia County, was 16 when he had a consensual act of oral sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend. Now he's preparing to leave his family and move to Wisconsin rather than face being homeless and jobless in Georgia, according to the lawsuit.

A measure similar to Georgia's went into effect last year in Iowa, and now some of its loudest critics are prosecutors and police. They say the Iowa law barring sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child care center has driven offenders from cities and caused many to become homeless, cluster in motels or vanish from authorities' sight. Iowa prosecutors are calling for a repeal.

The Iowa law was challenged in court and upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Already under current Georgia law, registered sex offenders can't live within 1,000 feet of child care centers, schools and places where children congregate. The new law goes much further, with employment and loitering restrictions and a broader definition of areas where children congregate, including school bus stops.

Said Keen: "This is a one-time inconvenience. We believe it's worth that to make sure that this law works as it was designed. And I don't apologize for that."

 [Articles & Essays - M]

Start Omhoog