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.