Georgia’s “Tough on Crime” Legacy

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Wendy is a fairly normal Georgia housewife and mother. Except that she spent 13 years on Georgia’s sex offender registry. Just after Wendy turned 17, she engaged in a sexual act with a 15 year old classmate. His parents did not approve of her relationship with their son, and sought the help of their local district attorney who prosecuted Wendy as an adult for sodomy, garnering her a felony conviction.

Wendy moved on from the incident and eventually married another man. They settled into a fairly typical life though they had to choose where they lived rather carefully. Georgia’s strict sex offender laws restricted how far she could live from many places where children could congregate. They eventually purchased a home, but were told they would have to move when a church opened a day care center within 1,000 feet of their residence.

As Wendy struggled to comply with trying to find a legal place to live, Georgia passed an even tougher measure which prohibited sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of any school bus stop. This made it almost impossible for any sex offender to live anywhere legally in Georgia, which was the purpose of the law. Wendy spent time in and out of a local jail for her inability to comply with the new statute.

Other laws which controlled who was considered a sex offender have also been strengthened over time, including people like Wendy who had engaged in one time consensual acts, or even teen pranks which may have involved nudity. Politically, there is currency in strengthening criminal statutes and penalties in this “tough on crime” state. Bills that add restrictions on potential predators represent low hanging fruit for legislators who want to showcase trophy legislation to voters in election years.

The only opposition to proposed bills comes from those who claim the measures are not strong enough, and amendments that are offered are usually ways to make the bills more strict. No legislator wants to be labeled soft on crime. Every legislator facing a potential vote understands that voting no risks having an opponent in the next election carpet their district with direct mail saying they voted in support of child predators.

After 13 years, a court finally removed Wendy from Georgia’s sex offender registry. Her case and others like it eventually forced reforms that allowed for “Romeo and Juliette” cases where adolescents similar and age were excluded from registration, as well as some relatively minor crimes which did not indicate that the guilty were potential sexual predators.

As legislators prepare to enter this session of the General Assembly, a much more comprehensive Criminal Justice reform package will be on the table. The legislation will be based on an appointed Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform report, and is aimed at cutting Georgia’s rising prison costs while balancing the need for public safety. Many of these reforms will be aimed at realigning drug sentencing, but the political will to commit to fixing a system that costs Georgia taxpayers over $1 Billion per year and incarcerates one of the nations’ highest percentages of its citizens will be great.

The Governor, Speaker, and other legislative leaders have spent a year laying the ground work to provide cover for legislators to take the financially necessary but political risky move of relaxing some criminal penalties which remain as the relics from past “tough on crime” trophy legislation. Yet at the same time, the fallout from the Penn State and Syracuse child abuse scandals have opened the door for legislators who want their name in headlines to predictably suggest that they may need to strengthen laws to protect Georgia’s children from child predators.

It is possible that improvements to Georgia law can be made to better protect them from the Jerry Sandusky’s of the world. This would generally involve careful study of existing law, weighing of pros and cons, extensive committee hearings where potential stakeholders could add potential pitfalls to the debate, and a deliberative process that improves Georgia’s legal code and actually does protect its most vulnerable citizens. It generally does not involve legislators who rush to pre-file bills upon the discovery of breaking headlines.

The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform has presented a golden opportunity to adjust Georgia’s criminal code. The Penn State scandal represents a typical opportunity for an enterprising legislator to get their name in headlines promising to toughen laws on acts which are already criminal and have harsh punishment. It will take disciplined leadership to ensure that the opportunity taken by the 2012 General Assembly is the one that serves the best long term interests of the State and its citizens, and not the short term interests of a few legislators who wish to feather their nests for re-election.

31 comments

  1. Max Power says:

    It’s not just sex offender laws that need to be changed, there’s a whole host of criminal laws that need to be scrapped or adjusted to reduce their penalties. I think if the average Georgian knew the state spends a billion dollars a year on the Dept of Corrections, you would see a greater push for criminal justice reform.

    • Engineer says:

      I know this post might rub some the wrong way but…. The sex offender laws, especially the statutory rape portion of the law needs to be amended.

      Yes, there are true cases of true rape, and they should be tried to the fullest extent of the law, but relations between two similarly aged consenting individuals shouldn’t be a crime (just because the parents of one of them doesn’t like the other). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not endorsing or saying teens should go buck-wild, but as we all know, teens do stupid stuff. Like it or not, it has always, still is, and will continue to happen in the future.

      • Yep. I had a neighbor of the rental house we own e-mail me a year or so ago after the previous tenant had moved out complaining that a sex offender was living there and that it was in close proximity to a school (within 1000 feet). (Apparently he had moved in with his girlfriend, whom I had leased the house to, without our knowledge.) I found out that he had been convicted of statutory rape, so I wasn’t really all that concerned without having more detail. (Never mind that they both had already moved out by this point.) Furthermore, you are allowed to live in close proximity to schools depending on what year you were convicted as well. He fell into the set of years where he could live anywhere he wanted. Yes, the statutory rape and plenty of other laws need to be reviewed / fixed.

  2. ckingtruth says:

    While they are looking at this, I wish someone would help me understand why you have to have FOUR DUI’s in this state before it’s a felony (of couse unless you kill someone before then). Biggest bunch of hyprocrites I’ve seen.

      • ted in bed says:

        Because its only a matter of time that a multiple DUI offender hurts or kills someone.

        In Cobb, I’ve been told the DUI’s are pleaded down in almost all cases. The government doesn’t have the money to prosecute everyone.

      • ckingtruth says:

        Why until two weeks ago couldn’t people buy alcohol on Sunday except in restaurants? If you’re trying to keep drunks off of the street then why not make the punishment for driving drunk harsher? Because the only reason for the law was to give the appearance of being a “good Christian.” How often have you seen stories in the news about a person who kills someone while driving and drunk has had multiple DUIs in the past.

  3. CobbGOPer says:

    I bet you could save upwards of $50 million if not more by doing one simple thing: decriminalize marijuana. As it stands now, even if you have one grain of marijuana in your possession, you will be arrested and jailed until you can make bail. Once out, then you face considerable court costs, trial continuances, probation issues. All this costs the county/state lots of money, in spite of the fact that they fine the hell out of these people when they do get caught.

    Decriminalize it. If a cop pulls you over and you have some in the car, he simply writes you a ticket and sends you on your way. Why? Because you weren’t using it in the car (hopefully), you weren’t killing anyone with it or killing anyone to get it, you didn’t steal anything to get it (or because of it). Let’s stop spending ridiculous amounts of money to arrest and prosecute people who by all rights should just be left alone. And if politicians must insist on marijuana remaining illegal, then at least decriminalize it to the point that it’s only a ticket. Keep the coppers free to arrest real criminals.

    • Dave says:

      I’ll do you one better, Cobb. Decriminalize it all! Pot, cocaine, heroin. Prohibition didn’t work in the 20’s and it doesn’t work now. What a s****y excuse to infringe on our freedoms and watch our every damn move. To those who say no and it’s a gateway to more criminal behavior, I say, enforce the laws against those supposed gateway crimes, set up treatment centers for those too freaking weak to handle the effects and the rest of the time stay the hell of our lives.

  4. Dave Bearse says:

    “…Georgia…incarcerates one of the nations’ highest percentages of its citizens…”

    That’s an understatement. The US incarceration rate is 25% higher than that of any other nation, making Georgia’s incarceration rate among the very highest in the world.

    LS, MS, TX, OK, AL then GA. We’re in great GOP company: http://www.publicagenda.org/charts/incarceration-rate-state

    Look for a General Assembly dimwit to sponsor legislation that would make it a crime for an average Joe to not report suspected child sexual abuse to law enforcement. Par for the course from a bunch that thinks “transparency” is the solution to its failure to investigate a “common knowledge” unethical adulterous relationships with lobbyists among its own leadership.

    • Harry says:

      The US incarceration rate is 25% higher than that of any other nation, making Georgia’s incarceration rate among the very highest in the world.
      Check out China.

  5. Dave Bearse says:

    It’s coming to a head as a matter of money, not principle or doing the right thing. Money is the principle I suppose.

    “They eventually purchased a home, but were told they would have to move when a church opened a day care center within 1,000 feet of their residence.” It is the taking of a right to property in some respects, but that never stopped a dimwit in the pocket of those with big money from pandering for votes.

  6. dorian says:

    Since when do you start defining rules by the exceptions? Fact of the matter is, all that bs may make good print, but it does not accurately reflect the state of the sex offender laws in Georgia. They can petition to come off the list after a certain number of years provided certain conditions are met and by an evaluation of each offender. Moreover, the reason we go to such great lengths to track sex offenders is because, for the most part, they are the most dangerous offenders with the highest recidivism rate. Swap out your little example with a guy who just did a stint for kidnapping and sexual assault. In that instance, you just let Phillip Garrido move in next to a daycare. What we need is for lawyers and judges to apply the laws we have fairly, not new laws.

    • Ryan says:

      While there is a system in place that allows for registered sex offenders to come off the list, yo uare sadly mistaken to believe that it actually works in practice. The truth is, compared to the percentage of people that would actually qualify for being removed from the list, the number of those that do get removed is almost nothing. Factors to be removed from the list allow for challenges to removal to be made from the prosecuting office, as well as it allows great discretion for the judge.
      In many counties, it takes little more than the district attorney simply stating their opposition to a removal from the registry to prevent someone from coming off. Fact is, just like many things in the legal system, just because it’s on paper, that doesn’t mean that it works in practice.

      • dorian says:

        I disagree. The prosecutor has an opinion the same way that the person with Corrections who did the risk assessment has an opinion, but the person whose opinion matters most, usually, is the sheriff and not the prosecutor. You don’t have to take my word for that. Go read the statute. Statistically speaking it probably is a small number who get removed, but it would seem like this is the sort of thing we’d want done on a case by case basis and not en mass. Maybe you think child molesters should be removed in bulk without a hearing or any discretion by anyone. I would tend to think this is not a very good idea. If your problem is with the judge having discretion, you probably have a lot to be disappointed about in general because judges have a great deal of discretion in a great many areas.

        • Ryan says:

          Reading the statute only takes you so far. I encourage you to go and watch how things actually happen in practice and the truth of the matter is, in practice it is a rarity that somone who meets all the criteria for being removed from the registry actually gets removed due to influences outside of the statutory language, including that from the prosecutor. Working in the legal system, I am well acquainted with the amount of judicial discretion that is employed on a daily basis, but I take exception to a judge who basically serves as a rubber stamp for a prosecutor/sheriff’s office, but in practice unfortunately the state continues to throw money at a correction system for those offenders who meet all of the statutory requirements yet for the very reasons mentioned above, can’t be removed from the registry.

    • ieee says:

      dorian:

      Your statement about “highest recidivism rate” is very well known to be false. Those are lies propagated by politicians, other people who have plenty to gain from the Registries, and clueless people.

      The truth of the matter is that we don’t “go to such great lengths to track sex offenders”. Registration, and especially, especially the adjunct idiocy that it has enabled, does nothing significantly beneficial that couldn’t be done more easily and better by other means which we ought to be following anyway. That wouldn’t be that bad except that Registration brings huge problems along with it, not the least of which is that it increases recidivism. Experts don’t support the Registries. Politicians do.

      And you just have to wonder why, if the Registries are so glorious, what excuse do the nanny governments have for not having millions of other violent felons Registered? The truth is that there is no excuse and that is one of the main reasons that the Registries, etc., etc., etc. are immoral and un-American.

      • dorian says:

        What about the 1988 study by Barbee and Marshall that said 43% with victims under the age of 16 re-offend. Or the 1991 study by Rice, Quincey, and Harris that found it to be 31%? The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers has actually managed to compile a good bit of data on the subject which I would encourage you to read before you go spouting off with unsupported anecdotal evidence.

        Moreover, the reason politicians can get away with registries is because, apparently everywhere but on Peach Pundit, most folks don’t want child molesters living next to day cares.

        Finally, for anyone who wants to educate themselves on the requirements for release from the registry, I would encourage you to look up OCGA 42-1-19 and make up your own mind.

        • Ryan says:

          Once again dorian, you’ve proved that you can read the statute, but until you actually see it in practice and how it works in the courts on a daily basis, I have to disagree with your assertion. Whether you believe it or not, coming off the registry isn’t as simple as complying with the statute. Law in theory (on paper) is not always the way law is practiced.

        • Charlie says:

          It’s not as much about coming off the registry and figuring out who needs to be on it in the first place. Child predators have a huge recitivism rate and need to be watched and monitored forever.

          It’s the lawmakers who want to compete to see how tough they can be, who add to statutes making people like Wendy who gave a BJ when she was 17 a sexual predator, or want to include things like streaking. Stupid things kids do do not make someone a child predator. Being able to distinguish between the two isn’t something the GA Gen Assembly has a great record of doing.

          • Ryan says:

            I must agree with the 2nd paragraph Charlie. There are too many cases where someone who was 19 had a relationship with a 16/17 year old and ended up on the registry. The worst part about it is when that person attempts to get off of the registry, they’re motion is rejected on the grounds that the District Attorney/Sheriff/County govt has some axe to grind and wants to be “tough on crime” and the General Assembly has encouraged this through there continued attempts to “punish those responsible” for breaking the law.

            • dorian says:

              Not only does that not happen in Georgia, it has never happened. For someone who claims to know how the law is applied, you don’t really seem to know the law. The age of consent is 16 and has been for a really long time. A 19 year old and a 16 year old is not a crime at all. Second, there has been for the last several years a “romeo and juliet” provision in the statute to make sexual contact a misdemeanor when there is a difference in age of just a few years. No registry involved there either.

              Moreover, I have participated in hearings pursuant the statute (when the contact was actually a crime). I have done it and seen it done. I am also fortunate to have the best judges in the state in my circuit. I’m sorry you don’t.

              Correcting all this misinformation is starting to get too much like work for me, so I am going to sign off with this.

              • Engineer says:

                You seem to have missed or ignored the fact that the column states the young woman was 17 and the young man was 15; at the time both were under 18.

              • Dash Riptide says:

                When anyone of any age commits an act of sodomy in a public place, as in the Whitaker case, he or she can be prosecuted for sodomy. Sodomy cannot be prosecuted when it is between 1) consenting 2) adults 3) in private, but otherwise it’s still agin’ the law.

                And when I say adult, I mean 18. Other states have rejected the notion that the statutory age of consent specifically for engaging in sexual intercourse is the equivalent of adulthood for Lawrence v. Texas purposes. So if you don’t want to worry about the local prosecutor coming after you for having relations with a 16 year old and ending up on the offender registry for life, do it like good married Baptists do and don’t get freaky until she’s 18. It won’t matter that you were doing it in private if your partner is ultimately deemed a non-adult under the law.

                There is Georgia precedent suggesting that the age of consent for statutory rape purposes (16) is the equivalent of adulthood for privacy purposes, but it’s sloppy, activist reasoning. *cough* Justice Sears *cough* The statutory age of adulthood in Georgia is 18. Don’t just assume that past musings from the Supremes suggesting that anything goes in private once your partner is 16 will stand the test of time. The reasoning can’t really be defended logically. “Consenting adults” means exactly that. 16 year olds can only consent to intercourse or other non-criminal sexual contact. For better or worse, sodomy remains criminal sexual contact. Under Lawrence, unless you’re both adults, you’re both consenting, and you’re doing it in private, you can still violate a vestigial sodomy statute from a bygone era, and the (federal) constitution doesn’t protect you from prosecution.

                I’m not advocating. I’m just saying. Be careful out there.

          • ieee says:

            Charlie:

            Unfortunately, the Registries don’t do a thing about “watching” or “monitoring” anyone. What they do is punish, harass, and restrict the vast majority of people listed on them who are not doing anything but living normal lives like anyone else. They do *absolutely nothing* to even slightly hinder anyone else from committing any type or crime that he/she would like (in fact, they contribute to it). If you believe differently, you are living in a serious dream. The Registries are a ridiculous panacea.

            But, if you are seriously looking for people for the nanny governments to put on lists, I would suggest starting will all violent felons. You know, 95% of people who have committed crimes with guns are far more dangerous than child molesters. When I was raising my children, I didn’t have any problem with child molesters. I simply assumed anyone could be one and I educated and supervised my children. It was easy. I didn’t need some half-ass solution from nanny governments. I was responsible and took care of my family.

        • ieee says:

          dorian:

          We all know there are tons of studies that show all kinds of different things and results. I expect we also all know that many of them are flawed and inaccurate. But experts in the field have a pretty good handle on the recidivism rate and there is quite a solid consensus that for most sex crimes the recidivism rate is actually quite low. There is really no debate about it among informed people, including the ATSA. There are a handful of specific behaviors that have somewhat high recidivism (but not when compared to yet certain other crimes). However, we are not talking about specifics crimes, we are talking about the crimes that were committed by people who are listed on the nanny governments’ Registries. Regardless, there is no doubt that the Unamericans who support the Registries always, always overstate and misrepresent facts. Heck, most of the time they aren’t even interested in facts (see Georgia’s legislators, just for a small example).

          You said, “most folks don’t want child molesters living next to day cares.” I’m glad you pointed that out because that is a perfect example of what a bunch of bunk the Registries have enabled and cultivated. The nanny governments have enacted their Banishment laws in the absolute direct opposite face of all facts about it that are very well known. And of course they don’t care.

          Since you seem to think the Registries actually do something useful, why don’t you educate us all on how your efforts are going to get them expanded to include all violent felons? Are we going to have one Registry for everyone or a separate one for each class? Are we going to apply Banishment laws across the board or are we going to tailor them to each class? Are we going to try to move them and their families out of their homes? And why is it taking so long to get them established? What are the excuses? I would really love to know and would appreciate someone educating me.

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