Flawed sex laws down South

BY DEVADATTA GANDHI

Published May 6, 2007

When I was told at my internship last summer at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta that I would be working on a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Georgia sex offenders, I cringed inwardly. Was this really the right side to be on? The term "sex offenders" brought to mind sick criminals, not victims in need of litigation assistance.

Imran Syed
Devadatta Gandhi

Having been forced to confront my own prejudice and actually learn about sex offender laws nationwide, I now believe Georgia and other states have enacted deeply flawed residency restrictions for convicted sex offenders.

Following the 1996 federal "Megan's Law" requiring states to release information about convicted sex offenders, several states created publicly available sex offender registries. However, the tightening of the noose around sex offenders - after they have served their prison sentences - goes beyond the arguably important safety issue of making sex offender information public. In recent years, many states have also created residency restrictions for sex offenders. According to research by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as of summer 2006, 17 states had imposed residency requirements for sex offenders.

On April 24, 2006, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue approved a sweeping new sex offender law. It states, "No individual required to register . shall reside or loiter within 1,000 feet of any child care facility, church, school or area where minors congregate." Theses areas "where minors congregate" include all parks, recreation facilities, playgrounds, skating rinks, neighborhood centers, gymnasiums, school bus stops and public swimming pools. The penalty for knowingly violating the act is a mandatory prison sentence of 10 to 30 years.

On the face of it, this law sounds reasonable. After all, who wants sexual predators near children? The problem is that Georgia's law applies to the more than 11,000 people on the registry without exception. This includes people like Wendy Whitaker, who is on the registry because at age 17 she had a single consensual act of oral sex with a 15-year-old male. Because of this one act, committed 10 years ago, Whitaker and her husband are now being forced out of their home.

The same is true for many others on the registry. Joseph Linaweaver was 16 when he had a single consensual act of oral sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend. He faces losing his home and job. Janet Allison was convicted of being a "party to the crime of child molestation and statutory rape" because she did not do enough to prevent her 15-year-old daughter from becoming sexually active. Now, she faces the same consequences as Whitaker and Linaweaver.

On June 20, 2006, the Southern Center and the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the residency restrictions in Georgia's law. The case is still in court. Currently no one on the registry may work within 1,000 feet of a school, church or daycare center. Many people on the registry have been arrested for living in prohibited locations. The court has yet to make a ruling on the church provision, and several individuals have been told they must move and/or quit their jobs because they either live or work within 1,000 feet of a church.

As law professor Wayne Logan explains in a recent article in the Iowa Law Review, research suggests that exclusion neither deters nor prevents repeat offenses, given that individuals bent on committing sex crimes simply travel outside their prescribed residences. Furthermore, he points out, the overwhelming majority of persons committing acts of sexual abuse against children are not anonymous strangers but individuals known to their victims.

Exclusion also impedes familial and social networks that may reduce recidivism and discourages individuals from reporting their locations. In Iowa, police and prosecutors have united in opposition to the state's residency restriction law, saying that it drives offenders underground and that there is "no demonstrated protective effect," according to a statement by the Iowa County Attorneys Association.

While litigation continues, we can hope that the Georgia legislature is more open to reason. If it is not, we will need independent judges not afraid to lose political capital in striking down the law. Dispassionate media coverage of sex offenders will also help expose the public to a realistic picture of the complexities behind "convicted sex offender" classifications.

Georgia's law reflects understandable goals, but is a terrible policy.

Devadatta Gandhi can be reached at debu@umich.edu.