By Andria Simmons
[name withheld] will always remember Dec. 3, 2010, as one of the best days of his life. It was the day his name was stricken from the Georgia Sex Offender Registry thanks to a new state law.
[name withheld], 37, of Stone Mountain, has never been charged with a sex crime. In 1993, an armed 18-year-old [name withheld] broke into a house to rob it. Once inside he commanded a boy to lay on the ground, an act that resulted in a false imprisonment of a minor charge. By Georgia law that put him on the registry.
- It is stuff like this why the registry, if kept, should be renamed from "Sex Offender Registry" to "Child Endangerment Registry," or something similar.
[name withheld], who now works as an HVAC repairman, is among 819 people whose names have been erased from the sex offender registry since May 2010. That’s when the new law took effect relaxing some requirements for removal from the registry.
The Legislature’s revision of a 2006 sex offender law, seen as one of the toughest in the nation, was intended to remove those who don’t likely pose a threat to the public from the list and fend off a barrage of lawsuits filed by civil rights groups who claimed many of its provisions violated the state and federal constitutions.
There has been a general consensus among law enforcement and lawmakers that sheriff’s departments across Georgia, which are tasked with monitoring the state’s 20,676 registered sex offenders, were spending too much time and resources monitoring low-level offenders.
The new law is giving law enforcement some relief while sparing those who are least likely to commit more crimes from the rigors of monitoring, said Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights.
“The former law suffered from a defect of diluting the registry with people like [name withheld] who are not what we typically think of as offenders,” Geraghty said. “A more tailored registry permits law enforcement officers to focus limited resources on people who committed serious sexual offenses.”
The law now allows people who committed misdemeanors, like a “Romeo and Juliet” statutory rape involving teenagers close in age, to be automatically stricken from the registry upon completion of their sentence.
A “safety valve” in the law allows certain low-risk offenders to be released from registration requirements and freed from restrictions on where they can live and work if a Superior Court judge approves their petition.
Some of these offenders, unlike [name withheld], have been convicted of sex crimes. Some of the crimes involved children. Judges decide who should be released from registry by reviewing the offender’s behavior since their convictions and the results of psychological testing. Such testing determines whether someone on the registry is likely to commit another sex crime.
There are 136 people who have succeeded in petitioning a Superior Court judge for removal under the new rules since July 1, 2010.
A few examples include:
- A 48-year-old Pine Lake man who pleaded guilty to one count of child molestation in Cobb County in 1999.
- A 50-year-old Gainesville man who pleaded guilty to sexual battery on a minor (making contact with the “intimate parts” of another’s body without their consent) in Cobb County in 1999.
- A 30-year-old mentally retarded man from Atlanta who was convicted in 1997 in DeKalb County on a charge of enticing a child for allegedly kissing a younger cousin on the mouth.
- A 27-year-old Polk County man who pleaded guilty to a count of sodomy in 2003 for having consensual sex with a 15-year-old when he was 17.
District attorney and sheriff’s offices receive notice when someone petitions to be removed from the list and are given a chance to object. Defense attorney Page Pate, who has handled several petitions, said that when there are objections, the judges typically do not grant the removal.
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said he thought the law change was a great idea.
“We ought to be worried more about predators and less about people that got caught in cars when they were 16,” Porter said.
There has been at least one consequence to the law that was not so favorable, or at least not for law enforcement officers, said Tonia Welch, training director for the Georgia Sheriff’s Association.
The revision was designed to help deputy sheriffs make better use of their time and resources when monitoring sex offenders. But deputies now have to take into account the date when an offender’s crime was committed before they can determine if they are subject to the 1,000-foot residency restrictions barring them from living near a church, school, park or other place where children gather.
After the law changed, individuals whose crimes were committed prior to 2003 no longer had move out of their homes or risk returning to jail if they subsequently learned they lived near a church or school.
“It complicated things,” said Welch. “It did not lessen the amount of time spent tracking, observing or monitoring sex offenders.”
For two and a half years after [name withheld] walked out of prison a free man, he struggled to find a place to live that met the strict requirements of the state. [name withheld], now a heating and air conditioning repairman, had to stop giving motivational speeches at public schools and churches, where he shared his story to help youngsters avoid making similar mistakes. Explaining his background to acquaintances who discovered he was on the registry was a constant source of embarrassment.
[name withheld] said he’s grateful to shed the stigma and move on with his life.
“People, when they hear sex offense, they automatically think pedophile,” [name withheld] lamented. “They don’t necessarily think of guys who had a situation like mine.”