Fairness for Prisoners' Families


Critics: Sex offender law would drive them underground

March 17, 2006

Convicted sex offenders could be driven out of Georgia's cities into suburban and rural areas under a popular Republican bill awaiting state Senate approval.

The bill would ban registered sex offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of child care centers, churches, schools and numerous other places where children congregate including bus stops.

Supporters say House Bill 1059 could lead to the nation's toughest sex offender laws and come down especially hard on those who prey on children. "The intent of this bill is to, above all else, protect the children of Georgia from dangerous sexual criminals and predators," House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island), the measure's chief sponsor, said in a written statement.

But critics say the proposal would cut sex offenders off from jobs, housing, transportation, treatment and other support.

"People coming out of prison are given 25 dollars and a bus ticket," said Sara Totonchi, public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit law firm that represents prisoners and death row inmates. "It's in our community's best interest for them to be able to get on their feet and successfully re-enter society."

In Iowa, a similar measure went into effect last year, and now some of its loudest critics are prosecutors and police. They say the state 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.

In Georgia, sheriffs support the sex offender bill in general, but they say the proposed buffer zones could cause unintended problems. Police in metro areas could be overwhelmed with trying to keep track of who lives and works too close to a bus stop, some say. And outlying sheriffs wonder if their counties would have to brace themselves for sex offenders migrating from cities because they can't live or work anyplace else.

The Georgia Sheriff's Association has asked lawmakers to amend the bill so offenders still could live or work near bus stops but couldn't loiter there.

"We're kind of against the wall on this one because if you don't support it [the bill] you're seen as soft on crime," Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said.

"I would hate to see a fellow sheriff have a tremendous number of sex offenders move in overnight. But at the same time, I'm for what's good for Gwinnett County. And if it's so uncomfortable that they don't want to live here, that's fine, too."

Inspired by Florida killing

Georgia House Republican leaders promised a tough bill after Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl, was snatched from her bed, raped and buried alive last spring. A convicted sex offender confessed to kidnapping and killing the girl.

Keen's sweeping 38-page proposal would, among other things, impose mandatory 25-year sentences for some sex crimes and require lifetime electronic tracking for the worst offenders. If a sex offender knowingly violated the rules on where he could live, work or loiter, he would be guilty of a felony and imprisoned for at least 10 years.

The bill passed the House 144-27 in early February and is under consideration today in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Under current Georgia law, registered sex offenders can't live within 1,000 feet of child care centers, schools and places where children congregate. HB 1059 would go much further, with its employment and loitering restrictions and a broader definition of areas where children congregate.

It would require sex offenders to steer clear of public and private parks and recreation facilities, playgrounds, skating rinks, neighborhood centers, gymnasiums, bus stops, and all other places established for people to congregate and wait for public transportation.

The bill's authors are seeking to put the safety of children "ahead of the interests of convicted sex offenders," Keen said in his statement. He wasn't available for an interview for this article.

"Georgia is a large state, and the United States even larger. There are plenty of places convicted sex offenders can live that is at least 1,000 feet from where our children congregate."

'It's not really working'

Don Vrotsos, chief deputy at the Dubuque County Sheriff's Office, has been dealing with the consequences of Iowa's law. "It sounds good, but it's not really working," said Vrotsos, who tries to keep track of that county's 101 sex offenders and estimates that he and two clerks now put in an extra 20 hours a week. Last fall, he told about 30 sex offenders they would have to move to comply with the law.

In Dubuque, "there is virtually no place for a sex offender to live," Vrotsos said. He estimates that at least 90 percent of the city is off limits to them. "So we're pushing them out of our city. ... And if we're pushing them outside of the city limits, they're not able to receive the services that they need."

Worse yet, his county and others are losing track of convicted sex offenders, he said. "They're leaving without telling us. Or they're moving to another address without telling us. Or they're providing us with false information." The chief deputy added: "Law enforcement is not sympathetic to the sex offender. We want to make sure we know where the sex offender is."

About 30 have moved from Iowa across the Missouri River to Douglas County, Neb., said Sheriff Timothy F. Dunning. Nebraska doesn't have a law like Iowa's, he said. Nor does the sheriff think it would be a good idea. "It drives people underground," he said.

Loss of supervision feared

Fourteen states, including Georgia, already have some form of residency restriction for sex offenders, and several are considering enacting buffer zones or expanding the ones they have. The Florida Legislature, for instance, is expected to take up a bill this spring that would ban sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, bus stops and other places where children congregate.

"We want to make it hard for sex offenders to live in areas that have heavy populations of children," said Florida Rep. Susan Goldstein, a Republican who introduced the bill. "We don't want to dangle the proverbial carrot in front of them."

As of Thursday, 12,130 sex offenders were registered in Georgia, and the whereabouts of 510 was unknown, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

It's unclear how many would have to change jobs or move if HB 1059 were adopted. But "under the logical extension of this bill, no one could live in an urban area," said Sandra Michaels, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

She predicted that some sex offenders would go "underground" and stop reporting to anybody "because they can't practically live. So the supervision aspect, which is so important for sex offenders, is gone."

Michelle Hitt, a spokeswoman for House Republicans, said the bill would place tighter controls on tracking offenders. They would be required to register their address with law enforcement before they leave prison. Under current law, they have a 10-day head start on local law enforcement, she said.

Global satellite tracking for those who are designated sexual predators, the most dangerous offenders, would further aid law enforcement in keeping tabs on sex offenders in their area, she said. The bill also would require every sex offender convicted after July 1, 2006, to serve at least one year of probation after prison. Those who commit serious violent felonies will be on lifetime probation after they are released from prison.

"The bigger concern of this Legislature is not where sex offenders live but making sure our children are safe in their communities, schools, churches, day care centers, playgrounds and other places where they hang out," Hitt said.

One molester weighs in

One convicted child molester who lives in eastern Atlanta called the proposed restrictions "the most impossible and insane thing I've ever heard of in my life.

"I believe that there are certain criminals out there that need that sort of structure," said the 39-year-old man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But the practicality of actually making it work is impossible. It would have to come down to creating a leper colony. That's really what they're trying to create."

He spent more than two years in prison for his crime, according to state records. And he said he spent seven in therapy to overcome his problem. He's not sure if he would have to relocate if the restrictions take effect. "Every single corner is a bus stop," he said. "How are you supposed to live if you can't just get on with your life?"

In Iowa, Republican state Sen. Jerry Behn proposed that state's residency law after a constituent called to tell him "a guy who has a history of chasing 6-year-olds" had moved into an apartment overlooking an elementary school playground, he said.

The legislation passed in 2002. Enforcement of the law began late last summer after it was challenged in court and upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Now a legislative task force is studying whether the 2,000-foot restriction is appropriate, Behn said. "There's nothing magical about 2,000 feet," he said. "I didn't care what the distance was. I just wanted some separation."

In hindsight, "it would have been better if we had put it at 1,000 feet," Behn said. "If you draw a map, pretty soon you can make it so no area in town is available to live in."

Still, Behn said, he stands by making sex offenders keep their distance. "The bottom line is it's all about protecting children. It certainly does not solve everything, but I think it contributes to a safer environment."

'False sense of security'

Where an offender lives, however, may have no bearing on whether he commits another sex crime against a child, studies for the Colorado Department of Public Safety and the Minnesota Department of Corrections suggest. The Minnesota study found that a sex offender was more likely to travel to another neighborhood to seek victims without being recognized.

In Iowa, the number of registered sex offenders whom authorities can't find more than doubled after the state law went into effect last year banning them from living within 2,000 feet of child care centers and schools. As of this week, 344 sex offenders were unaccounted for by law enforcement, compared to 142 on June 1, 2005, according the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

Gordon Miller, who supervises Iowa's sex offender registry, said he believes the new law isn't the whole reason more sex offenders are missing. Law enforcement agencies are working harder to confirm sex offenders' whereabouts and have become stricter about reporting who is missing, he said.

But prosecutors in Iowa say the increase in AWOL offenders underscores numerous problems with the 2,000-foot law. "When you examine this provision, it does not promote public safety," said Corwin Ritchie, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association.

In Iowa, many sex offenders end up in distant motels, far from parole and probation supervisors, Ritchie said. And because residency is defined under the Iowa law as where a person sleeps, some sex offenders leave their homes at night and drive to highway rest stops in order to comply with the law, he said. "We just don't see how that improves public safety to any degree."

The residency restriction is causing offenders to become homeless, to change residences without notifying authorities, to register false addresses or to simply disappear, he said.

Meanwhile, said Vrotsos, chief deputy in Dubuque, "It's giving the public a false sense of security."

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