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Monday, July 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Georgia sex-offender rules create stir

Los Angeles Times

ATLANTA — Wendy Whitaker cannot live in her new home, a 106-year-old bungalow with rocking chairs on its front porch and an American flag flying from its white picket fence.

A month after Whitaker, 26, bought the house in Harlem, a small town in northeastern Georgia, police officers informed her that it is within 1,000 feet of a child-care center.

Whitaker is a registered sex offender: when she was 17, she had consensual sex with a 15-year-old boy.

For the past four months, Whitaker and her husband have lived in his brother's cramped mobile home because Georgia law restricts sex offenders from living near child-care centers. And now they may have to move again.

In April, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a stricter law, which prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school-bus stop. Anyone who does not comply faces a minimum of 10 years in prison.

Hailed by its sponsor as the "toughest law in the country," the act passed almost unanimously through Georgia's General Assembly. But now it seems destined to become a textbook example of the difficulty in imposing tougher penalties on sex offenders.

Not only do sheriffs say the bus-stop restriction would be almost impossible to enforce — Georgia has more than 10,000 sex offenders and 150,000 school-bus stops — but human-rights groups have raised the thorny issue of sex offenders' constitutional rights.

On Thursday, two days before the law came into effect, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper temporarily blocked the state from forcing sex offenders to move from homes near school-bus stops. The restraining order remains in effect until July 11, when a hearing will be held to debate the constitutionality of the law.

Attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit law center that filed a federal lawsuit earlier this month, argue that the school-bus-stop provision would banish thousands of Georgia's sex offenders — many of whom, they say, pose little threat to society — from their homes.

Unlike many other states, Georgia does not distinguish between people convicted of violent sexual offenses, such as rape, and teenagers who had consensual sexual relations with minors.

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"I feel punished over and over and over again for something I did as a teenager," said Whitaker, the main plaintiff in the suit, who has already served five years' probation and now fears she will be forced to live apart from her husband.

Belated punishment?

Whitaker's predicament, attorneys say, demonstrates that the bus-stop restriction violates the Constitution's ban on laws that are "ex post facto," meaning after the fact.

"It is a fundamental concept of justice: You don't add punishment to people after the fact," said Lisa Kung, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. "Here we have many people who got five years' probation — that's punishment — and suddenly, wow, 10 years later, they're banished from Georgia."

A huge number of Georgia's sex offenders live within 1,000 feet of bus stops: in DeKalb County in suburban Atlanta, all 490 offenders would have to move; in Bibb County, about 85 miles south, all but three of the county's 230 sex offenders would have to move.

Already, some sex offenders have left Georgia. Eight have registered just across the state line in Russell County, Ala., since the law passed.

While legislation that restricts where sex offenders may live has been introduced in at least 15 states, Georgia — which already prohibits their living within 1,000 feet of schools, child-care centers and playgrounds — is the first state to prohibit living near school-bus stops.

Georgia does not make exceptions for those who already owned or rented homes, and it does not offer hardship exemptions based on old age, illness or disability. According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, about 25 people on the registry are in nursing homes.

Yet supporters of the law — which also imposes mandatory prison sentences of 25 years for rape and child molestation and requires sexual predators to be monitored by electronic tracking devices — insist that the school-bus-stop restriction is necessary.

"Yes, it's an inconvenience; some folks will have to move," said Rep. Jerry Keen, the House majority leader, who sponsored the legislation. "But if you weigh that argument against the overall impact, which is the safety of children, most folks would agree this is a good thing."

Keen said he decided to make it as difficult as possible for sex offenders to live in Georgia after 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was raped and murdered in Florida by a registered sex offender who was subsequently arrested in Augusta, Ga.

Although legislators could not figure how to craft the residency restrictions to exempt low-level offenders without creating an exception for everyone, he said, he remained confident the law would stand.

"This is something that is taking root all over the country," he said. "People are putting a premium on the safety of kids."

Restrictions upheld

So far, legal efforts to challenge residency restrictions for sex offenders have been unsuccessful. In 2004, a federal judge ruled that Iowa's rule against offenders living within 2,000 feet of schools and child-care centers was unconstitutional because it retroactively imposed sanctions. But that decision was reversed by the Iowa Court of Appeals, which ruled in the name of public safety.

Yet critics of Georgia's new law say the bus-stop provision is not likely to make children any safer. In fact, many worry that some sex offenders will stop registering.

"The level of desperation is amazing," Kung said. "People are trying hard, but they literally have no place to go. Many people will just disappear off the grid."

Thomas Brown, the sheriff of DeKalb County, held a news conference last month to complain that the law is "almost unenforceable."

He says his office does not have the resources to ensure that all 490 sex offenders in the county move. If the bus-stop provision comes into effect, DeKalb will take warrants out on anyone who does not comply, but will not search for them unless they pose a threat to public safety.

But that, he said, is unlikely.

"The fortunate thing for me is there are no dangerous predators in DeKalb, not one," said Brown, explaining that most of the sex offenders in DeKalb were men who, while in their teens, had consensual sex with 14- or 15-year-old girls.

Wendy Whitaker — the woman who had sex with a 15-year-old when she was 17 — is now studying for an associate's degree in criminal justice. She has faith that the law will generate enough debate about sex offenders for her to be able to remain in Georgia.

"People hear 'sex offender' and they automatically think of a dirty old man prowling the streets," she said. "They don't think about people like me."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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