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To be as charitable as possible, state Rep. Jerry Keen must have been sick or otherwise absent from school on the day the rest of his eighth-grade civics class was learning about governmental "checks and balances."
How else to explain the St. Simons Island Republican's near-outrage that the Georgia Supreme Court had "superseded both the legislative and executive branches of government, and therefore the will of the people of Georgia" in striking down a state law delineating where convicted sex offenders could reside in the state.
Outside of his baseless pronouncement that "the will of the people" had been superseded by the court ruling - a view reflecting the unwarranted assumption that the state legislature, which enacted the law in question, acts as a majority of Georgians would have it act (see the legislature's discussion last year of Sunday alcohol sales referenda as an example of acting against the majority will) - Keen's observation reflects exactly what happened with the Wednesday ruling from the state's highest court.
And what happened in the Supreme Court is precisely what is supposed to happen under the state's constitution.
That constitution gives the power to enact laws to the Georgia General Assembly, but with some limits. The relevant section reads, "The General Assembly shall have the power to make all laws not inconsistent with this Constitution, and not repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, which it shall deem necessary and proper for the welfare of the state."
But - whether the gentleman from St. Simons likes it or not - the state constitution also provides for judicial review of laws passed by the General Assembly. The relevant section reads, "The Supreme Court shall be a court of review and shall exercise exclusive appellate jurisdiction in the following cases: (1) All cases involving the construction of a treaty or of the Constitution of the State of Georgia or of the United States and all cases in which the constitutionality of a law, ordinance, or constitutional provision has been drawn in question ... ."
In this particular instance, the General Assembly - quite rightly, of course - surmised that it would be "necessary and proper for the welfare of the state" to keep registered sex offenders from living near children. Last year, legislators enacted a law banning such offenders from living within 1,000 feet of places where children congregate.
Subsequently, however, a 44-year-old convicted child molester who became subject to the new law filed suit after being told by his probation officer that he would have to move from a home he bought in 2003. When he bought the home, it wasn't within 1,000 feet of any prohibited location, but subsequent to his purchase, two day care centers were built within the 1,000-foot buffer.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled last week - exercising the authority granted to it in the state constitution - that the law violated protections against the public taking of private property enshrined in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Of course, as a practical matter, no one should be too worried about whether a state law represents an inconvenience to a registered sex offender, particularly when that offender's crime involved abuse of a child.
There is, however, some cause for worry when an elected member of this state's lawmaking body - particularly someone like Keen, who serves as majority leader in the state House of Representatives - displays a basic misunderstanding of the legislature's role in state government.
In the final analysis, all that the Supreme Court ruling means is that the General Assembly needs to work a bit harder, to craft a piece of legislation that can meet the legitimate public interest of keeping sex offenders away from children without running afoul of this country's bedrock legal foundation.
Keen and his colleagues would be wise to pursue that course, and to stop railing at a system of governance that is working just as it should.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
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NEWARK — Changes to Ohio’s sex-offender laws likely will expedite the judicial process, but they could bog down law enforcement, local officials said.
On Jan. 1, the labels of sexually oriented, habitual and predator will be gone and replaced with a three-tiered system. Classification hearings will be a thing of the past because offenders will be designated as Tier I, II or III — Tier III has the strongest notification requirements — depending on the crime they are convicted of.
The legislation passed by the Ohio General Assembly this summer will be retroactive, meaning all 33,000 sex offenders in Ohio could be affected, said Jennifer Brindisi, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.
Although the switch to tiers will remove an additional hearing from the prosecutor’s schedule, it could require many more visits with offenders for those in charge of the registry, said Detective Brock Harmon, of the Licking County Sheriff’s Office.
“We are anticipating it’s going to be a lot busier because of the new laws,” he said.
Harmon, who is the sole detective in the office charged with keeping up sex-offender records, said with the changes he potentially could have a rapist now classified as a sexually oriented offender, the lowest level under the active tags, automatically become a Tier III offender. This adjustment would, among other changes including lifetime registration, require the offender, who checked in annually as a sexually oriented offender, to meet with Harmon every three months, he said.
More responsibility could lead to increased infractions, Harmon said.
“Those that can’t follow, that can’t comply, if they only had to come in one time per year now they’ll be out of compliance four times per year,” he said.
Although the bureau will be responsible for examining the backlog of existing offenders, all new cases will be classified by the local sheriff’s office, Brindisi said. The crimes by tier have not been fully decided yet, she added.
A “smoother transition” lies ahead for the Licking County Prosecutor’s Office, Prosecutor Ken Oswalt said.
“As I understand it, most of what is going to occur under the three-tier system is going to be based upon what you are convicted of,” he said. “Based upon that you fall into one of these three tiers, period.”
He added that it is possible that defendants facing a lifetime of registration as a sex offender might choose to fight the charges instead of working with the prosecution and pleading guilty.
Oswalt said his office never has allowed sex-offender designation to be a part of plea negotiations.
“I’ve had situations where we have arrived at a plea on the charges and then found ourselves in a contest over the classification,” he said.
Oswalt said he does expect to see the law challenged in higher and local courts, but added he does not have much sympathy for those affected by the modifications.
“If you don’t think you should be a Tier III offender, you shouldn’t have committed the crime,” he said.
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Former NBA star slapped with federal lawsuit after ‘making a scene’
LAS VEGAS - A former beverage manager at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas has sued Dennis Rodman, claiming the former NBA star assaulted her in March 2006 by rubbing up against her body and slapping her on the buttocks.
In her federal lawsuit filed this week, Sara Robinson also accused her former employer of retaliating against her after she complained about Rodman's behavior.
Rodman spokeswoman Shannon Barr declined to comment Saturday.
In her complaint, Robinson said she was working in the resort's Cuba Libre bar when Rodman, a hotel guest, began "making a scene'' by trying to climb atop the bar after failing to gain her full attention.
"As Robinson stepped around the bar, Rodman grabbed her, pulled her towards him and rubbed his body against hers,'' the lawsuit alleges. "Robinson tried to get free from Rodman's grasp at which time he assaulted her by reaching down and slapping her open-handed on the bottom.''
The complaint, which seeks unspecified damages, claims Robinson was fired after she filled out a voluntary statement detailing Rodman's actions in a subsequent incident at the same bar the next month.
The document accuses Rodman of assault and battery, and the Hard Rock Hotel of negligence by failing to protect her from Rodman's "harassing conduct,'' the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
The 46-year-old Rodman is no stranger to lawsuits in Las Vegas. Four women earlier sued him, accusing him of grabbing their breasts at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1998.
In 2001, a district court jury awarded former Mirage craps dealer James Brasich $80,000 in another case against Rodman.
Brasich said Rodman humiliated him by rubbing dice on his head, chest, stomach and genitals during an October 1997 craps game. Rodman appealed the verdict, and both sides later reached a confidential settlement.
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We will wait to see what the Southern Center for Human Rights says. How can you knock down portions of a bill without knocking it all down to be rewritten? Again, I'll wait for the official notice from SCHR and the Sheriff, whom I'll contact tomorrow.
Offenders don't have to move as sites shift
The Georgia Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a part of the state's stringent ban on sex offenders living near where children congregate, while upholding the bulk of the law as constitutional.
The ruling shifts the burden to the business or school that opens near the home of a registered sex offender, forcing it to choose where it locates, rather than requiring the sex offenders to move each time a new gathering spot for children is established.
The sex offender law, enacted in 2006, forbids registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, bus stops, churches, day care centers and any other place where children gather.
The state's highest court upheld that ban but said sex offenders can't be forced to move if they own a home outside the 1,000 feet designation and a new school, business or bus stop is established that puts them in conflict with the law.
"As a result, sex offenders face the possibility of being repeatedly uprooted and forced to abandon homes in order to comply with the restrictions," presiding Justice Carol Hunstein wrote in the opinion.
The opinion also calls the law a "statutory scheme" to get rid of sex offenders. The "possibility exists" that places might be established with the purpose of driving sex offenders out of a community, it said.
Richmond County District Attorney Danny Craig said Wednesday that the court issued a "very limited ruling."
"It appears that the Supreme Court has not struck down the statute," he said.
Rather, the ruling affirms the constitutionality of the ban, Mr. Craig said, adding that presiding Justice Hunstein narrowly tailored the opinion.
"She used a scalpel instead of an ax," he said.
Mr. Craig said he doubts that the ruling will affect many sex offenders in the Augusta Judicial Circuit.
The ruling came as a surprise to local law enforcement.
Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he "absolutely" supports a ban on where sex offenders live, but added that he "must enforce whatever laws are in the books" and upheld by the courts.
"Our people had to do a lot" of enforcing, he said of the ban. "Our people had to physically go out and check where people lived and where they were working."
The court's ruling didn't change the ban that prohibited sex offenders from working anywhere within 1,000 feet of where minors congregate.
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Legislators should pass workable sex offender law
When it comes to addressing key issues, our state legislators have become remarkably adept at passing unworkable laws designed chiefly to make themselves look good come election time.
One recent example, the General Assembly's ham-handed attempt to crack down on registered sex offenders, was struck down by a state Supreme Court ruling last week.
The much-debated law decreed that convicted sex offenders not be able to live within 1,000 feet of a school, church, day care center, school bus stop or other site where children may gather. The stated objective of the law was to force such offenders to congregate far from neighborhoods where children live, play and learn.
Anyone know of such a place that actually exists? In other words, sex offenders are allowed to get out of jail when their sentence is up, but they can't live or work anywhere in the state. Might as well keep them in prison.
In the particular case ruled by the court, a convicted sex offender who owned a home and a business in Clayton County would be forced to move when a day care center opened nearby. The court ruled that such a imposition was beyond the pale and struck down the law.
Public sentiment in such a case won't be in favor of the state's 11,000 or so offenders, but that is what the legislature counted on. In its attempt to play to the fears of the electorate, it wanted to show it was "getting tough" with sex offenders, in effect driving them out of the state.
If enforced, the law would keep sex offenders on the move constantly, unable to hold down a job or own a home or business anywhere in the state. Turning convicted felons who seek to re-enter society into nomadic pariahs doesn't solve the problem; it just passes it on to someone else.
Yet solving the problem isn't so much the goal as is showing the voting public just how committed the legislature is to punishing bad people and protecting our children. Only that won't happen now because the courts have put the law in limbo until a more reasonable one can be enacted.
Law enforcement officials weren't happy with the law because they saw it as unenforceable. Bus stops, for instance, are not set in stone. Local sheriffs would be obligated to dedicate a huge amount of resources and effort to shuffling about sex offenders. Do we want our local law officers cracking down on dangerous crimes or spending their precious time stretching out 1,000-foot tape measures hither and yon?
The idea of the offender registry, in fact, is to give law enforcement and neighbors the ability to keep an eye on such offenders. It is best to know who and where they are rather than drive them underground.
By keeping them in plain sight, it is more feasible to monitor any activities that could be suspicious.
Consider which case is worse: Having a known sex offender living in the neighborhood, or having no idea where a sex offender might be living or lurking.
Of course, the state also needs to designate between different levels of sexual misconduct. It's one thing to keep tabs on adults who are proven to have preyed on children; they are the worst kind of threat and need to stay in custody as long as possible.
Yet state law treats a 17-year-old who has sex with a 15-year-old the same as an adult-child assault. Common sense dictates that such youthful indiscretion does not identify a pattern of child molestation, and such an offender is less of a risk to the general populace.
But none of that matters to legislators who are more in tune with showing their concern for a problem than actually fixing it. We send our state reps and senators to Atlanta for 40 days each year to craft reasonable laws that keep us safe and prosperous. When they overreach, they waste their time and our money and do not begin to solve the problems they elected to address.
The sexual offender law is a prime example of that. The Assembly needs to try again next year to craft a law that targets the truly dangerous convicted molesters and gives law enforcement a reasonable way to keep tabs on them so our children won't be threatened.
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At a time when public awareness of child molesters and rapists has never been more acute, arrests for sex offenses have fallen by almost 10% in the past decade, FBI statistics show.
For some experts, the steady drop in arrests in the middle of intense public scrutiny is a mystery; other officials say heightened monitoring explains the drop.
FBI reports show that arrests are down across the country, falling from 70,237 in 1997 to 63,243 last year.
The decline in both reported rapes and arrests for sex offenses nationwide began in the early 1990s, before many of today's get-tough measures were implemented.
New federal and state laws are cracking down on convicted offenders like never before. For example, as of September, an Arizona law prohibits higher-risk offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or day-care facility.
The Georgia Supreme Court this week tossed out a similar residency law, saying it is unconstitutional to prohibit where sex offenders can live.
Some officials say the drop in sex-offense rates and increased monitoring go hand in hand.
"I think greater public awareness is part of it," said Arizona state Rep. Bob Robson, a Republican. "It all leads to a decline."
Robson last year sponsored a state law that requires registered sex offenders to disclose their e-mail addresses, instant-messaging names and profiles on social-networking sites such as My Space.
He said he is considering pushing a bill next year to prohibit the use of online aliases. He said it is important for laws to keep pace with technology, adding that he is never surprised at "what the criminal mind can conceive."
One of the ironies of the greater scrutiny is the focus on sexual assaults involving strangers. The vast majority of sex offenses are committed by relatives or friends of the victim.
The toughest new laws have arisen from stomach-churning cases involving child abduction and murder by a stranger. Seven-year-old Megan Kanka, for example, was kidnapped, raped and killed in 1994 in New Jersey by a violent repeat sex offender living across the street. Kanka's death inspired Megan's Law, which requires police departments across the country to notify residents when a registered sex offender moves into their neighborhood.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that there are 603,000 registered sex offenders nationwide. However, the agency maintains that 100,000 of those offenders have failed to keep their registration current and that no one knows where they are.
Could treatment be a factor in declining sex offenses?
Various studies over decades have found a wide range of recidivism rates. Findings appear to vary according to type of offense and victim, how recidivism is defined and other factors. One Canadian study in 1998 found a recidivism rate of 13% for child molesters over four to five years. Another in 2004 found that over 25 years, three in five sex offenders commit a sex crime again.
Sandra Nettles, a licensed clinical social worker with Deer Valley Counseling in Phoenix, says statistics show there is low a recidivism rate among offenders who successfully complete treatment. She works with the state parole department and treats as many as 60 sex offenders a week.
"A one- or two-year treatment program is effective, but it only works as good as a person wants it to work," Nettles said. "They deserve a chance.. .. If they are not allowed to be a pro-social citizen, then they should not let them out (of prison)."
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Thousands of convicted sex offenders are reporting to police that they are homeless, raising concerns that their lack of a permanent address could make them difficult to track, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
Sex offenders, who are required to register with police and often barred by law from living near places where children gather, list addresses such as a tent, "near a bike path," "behind a cemetery" or "woods behind Wal-Mart."
In Boston, nearly two-thirds of 136 high-risk sex offenders lack permanent addresses. In New York City, more than 100 registered at two homeless shelters. In Miami last month, 22 reported living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway that links the city to Miami Beach.
"People should be concerned about this," says Jill Levenson, sex-crimes policy analyst at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. She says homeless sex offenders are more likely to commit another crime.
USA TODAY reviewed each state's sex-offender registry, searched tens of thousands of addresses and interviewed officials in 45 states after contacting all states. The analysis shows:
•Two-thirds of the states allow convicted sex offenders, including violent predators, to register as homeless or list a shelter or inexact location as long as they stay in touch with police.
•At least a dozen states list hundreds of sex offenders without specific addresses. California registered 2,716 as "transient." Washington state listed 564 as homeless, but the number is probably much higher, says Carolyn Sanchez of the Washington State Patrol.
•Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maine and other states say the number of homeless sex offenders is rising. Landlords often won't rent to them, and laws in dozens of states and hundreds of cities bar them from living near areas where kids play.
"Residency restrictions are the linchpin for causing homelessness among sex offenders," says Frances Breyne of the Kansas Department of Corrections.
In California, about 500 have registered as "transient" since a law last year blocked them from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park, says Bill Sessa of the California Department of Corrections. They must report daily where they'll spend the night.
An exact count of convicted sex offenders who are homeless could not be done because not all state records are online. Some states do not list homeless as an address but allow shelters, post office boxes, highway mile markers and streets without house numbers.
Illinois prefers that an offender register as homeless and report weekly to police rather than register once a year and list a shelter where he might stay one night, says Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff to the attorney general.
Some states keep sex offenders locked up until they find housing. In Michigan, they are less likely to get parole than murderers, says Russ Marlin, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. In Georgia, sex offenders can be arrested for being homeless.
Homeless sex offenders are not necessarily more dangerous than those with housing, says Laura Rogers, director of the Justice Department's office for tracking sex offenders.
She says, "The people you need to be worried about most are the ones who aren't registering at all."
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Published 11/25/07 in The Times-Herald
By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
On Wednesday, Georgia's Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the residency restrictions placed on sex offenders in Georgia were unconstitutional, while upholding rules regarding where sex offenders can work and loiter.
Many states have rules regulating where some sex offenders can live. But Georgia's rule, toughened in 2006, put sex offenders in the position of having to move anytime a new day-care center, park, public pool or church was built near them.
"It is apparent that there is no place in Georgia where a registered sex offender can live without being continually at risk of being ejected," read the unanimous opinion, written by presiding Justice Carol Hunstein.
The justices were also concerned that the rule "effectively places the state's police power in the hands of private parties, enabling them to force a registered sex offender like the appellant, under penalty of a minimum 10-year sentence for commission of a felony, to forfeit valuable property rights to his home."
The suit that led to the state Supreme Court ruling was filed by a Riverdale man who was faced with having to move out of the house he owned because a day-care center opened nearby.
After getting married, the man and his wife searched for a home to buy — one that was far enough away from churches, schools, etc.
But then, a day-care center opened just down the street.
The man then had to vacate the home immediately. The court ruled that as an unconstitutional taking of his property.
The law "positively precludes appellant from having any reasonable investment-backed expectation in any property purchased as his private residence," the opinion said.
The man was also part owner of a barbecue restaurant. A day-care center opened up near it, and he had to stop working there. But the justices ruled that the rule was not unconstitutional in this case, because the man could still own the business — he just couldn't work there.
Coweta Sheriff's Office Sgt. Mike McGuffey, who is in charge of the sex offender registry for Coweta County, is not concerned about the ruling.
And he's seen the difficulties it has caused for offenders who have done their time and are trying to get on with their lives.
The most immediate effect is "it will eliminate me having to go out and measure distances," McGuffey said. When an offender moves, McGuffey has to go out and make sure that the new residence is far enough away from pools, gyms, parks, and the like.
A lot of sex offenders have a hard time finding a suitable place to live, McGuffey said. Especially those who have just gotten out of prison or don't have a lot of money.
"If they don't have somebody they can stay with, they have to go to trailer parks or extended-stay motels," McGuffey said.
Most motels are off-limits because of the swimming pool. And McGuffey said he can only think of one trailer park that is in the limits of the law.
And that one is more expensive than others, McGuffey said. Oftentimes, the offenders will move in there, but then find they can't afford it.
McGuffey said there have been many instances where he has allowed a sex offender to stay in a prohibited spot until the person can find something better.
"Some of them I can't kick out on the street. And I wouldn't," he said. "I let them live there until they can get a new place. They have to contact me every day."
He gave one example of a man who was released from prison after 17 years. The only person he could live with was his father, who lived across from a church. The man searched long and hard for a place to stay, and he eventually found one. Soon after he moved in, though, it rained, and the house leaked. "He told me everything he had was soaking wet," McGuffey said. "It was a dump and he was paying a lot of money. He was freezing. I allowed him to move back in with his father."
The residency rules keep the sex offenders always on the move.
McGuffey thinks he can actually keep better tabs on the sex offenders without the residency restrictions.
"Even though they are living close to a school or day care, I'm still able to watch them, and everybody else will be able to watch them," McGuffey said.
The court ruling will be a double-edged sword, he said. "A lot of people will be nervous; on the flip side, they'll be paying more attention to that sex offender living in that area."
If a sex offender is constantly being forced to move, "they're more apt to go underground and hide," he said. And if they only thing a person can afford is near a park or daycare or school, "that's what they're going to take," he said.
Plus 1,000 feet really isn't that far, McGuffey added.
The vast majority of sex offenders "want to do the right thing," McGuffey said. "They call me regularly with updated vehicle information, with updated work info. A lot of them call me when they go on vacation or are going out of town," he said.
"They don't want to mess up and they're not trying to mess up. If they have any doubts or questions, the majority of them call me," he said.
McGuffey said that the sex offender laws have their good points and bad points.
"As long as they're showing that they're trying to do the right thing, I will help them as much as I can," he said.
There are two sex offender lists — the regular one, and the list for those determined to be sexual predators. There is only one sexual predator in Coweta, McGuffey said.
The list is also very broad. It covers everything, from child rapists to those who had consensual relationships with teenage boyfriends or girlfriends, to those caught urinating in public or "streaking."
But the crime someone was convicted of doesn't always tell the whole story, McGuffey said. If the person were convicted in another state, the charges could mean something different. Additionally, through plea bargains, someone could be convicted of a crime that is much less severe than what their actual actions deserved.
"I guess that's why it's so broad — you never can tell," McGuffey said. "Until the legislature figures something out ... we'll keep up with all of them."
Coweta's state representatives, Lynn Smith and Billy Horne, could not be reached for comment on Friday.
State Sen. Mitch Seabaugh was out of town Friday and said he hadn't been keeping up with the news over the holiday.
Seabaugh said he would reserve comment until he had received all the information.