Assembly Tweaking Laws on Sex Offenders; Lawmakers Aim to Fix Faults after Criticism of the State's Handling of the Issue in '06

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Byline: VICKY ECKENRODE

ATLANTA - With a federal lawsuit still hanging over last year's sweeping sex offender crackdown, lawmakers will begin debating a bill attempting to address concerns critics have raised about the law.

Senate Bill 249 would allow sheriffs to keep closer tabs on offenders by making them register with local law enforcement in the counties where they work or go to school instead of just where they live.

Sen. Jim Whitehead, R-Evans, introduced the bill as legislators began a midsession break.

Whitehead said he filed the proposed changes on behalf of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, which represents the 159 county-elected sheriffs in the state.

"They think there needs to be some tweaking, so to speak, that maybe we didn't put something in there [last year] that we should have," said Whitehead, chairman of the Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security committee. "To protect people the way they needed to, they needed to have a few things changed."

There are currently more than 13,100 registered sex offenders in the state, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation officials.

Besides widening the registration procedure, Whitehead's bill no longer would allow homeless offenders to use their vehicle tag information in place of a physical address.

The bill also requires offenders registering with sheriffs to provide a palm print along with their physical description in accordance with provisions of the 2006 federal Adam Walsh Child Protection Act.

Last year, the General Assembly passed House Bill 1059, which Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into a law, that placed new restrictions on where convicted sex offenders could live and work. The law also increased prison sentences for many sex crimes and required lifetime electronic monitoring of the most dangerous sex predators.

Terry Norris, executive vice president of the sheriffs' group, said a training conference about the law drew more than 300 deputies from across the state with numerous questions about how to enforce some of its provisions.

Whitehead's bill would ease some of the confusion, Norris said. "The changes in this particular bill were brought forth by our sheriffs' offices throughout the state in an effort to better respond to their obligation to track and monitor sex offenders," he said.

The law's stricter requirements on how close offenders could live or work near children stirred up the most controversy last year and helped propel the federal lawsuit.

The way the law was written, offenders could not live or "loiter" within 1,000 feet of child-care facilities, schools, churches, school bus stops, parks, playgrounds and swimming pools.

Offenders also cannot work within 1,000 feet of child-care facilities, schools or churches.

BUS STOPS ARE A PROBLEM

The school bus stop provision was particularly contentious after sheriffs said it was nearly impossible to enforce because of the large number of stops, which can often change based on school system needs. …

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