By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
As convicted sex offenders go, they seem to pose little danger.
One is 100 years old. Another can barely walk and is in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease. Another is dying of heart disease in a nursing home.
Yet under a new Georgia law, thousands of registered sex offenders, even the old and feeble, could be pushed from their homes and hospices.
"He doesn't really know anything about it," said Ruby Anderson, 77, whose husband was convicted of having sex with a minor in 1997 and, at 81, no longer recognizes members of his family because of Alzheimer's disease. "The trouble is, I just don't know where we can go."
As states around the country have sought in recent years to control the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders, Georgia's law stands out as one of the toughest, a testament to the daunting public fears regarding children's safety.
The roughly 10,000 sex offenders living in Georgia have been forbidden to live within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, church or school bus stop. Taken together, the prohibitions place nearly all the homes in some counties off-limits -- amounting, in a practical sense, to banishment.
"My intent personally is to make it so onerous on those that are convicted of these offenses . . . they will want to move to another state," Georgia House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R), who sponsored the bill, told reporters.
Since the law's enactment in July, however, a federal judge, human rights advocates and even some of the sheriff's departments that are supposed to enforce the measure have suggested that the zeal for safety may have gone too far.
The residency law applies not only to sexual predators but to all people registered for sexual crimes, including men and women convicted of having underage consensual sex while in high school.
Advocates for the sex offenders say the law is unfair to people who have served their sentences and been deemed rehabilitated. Many police officers, prosecutors and children's advocates also question whether such measures are effective. Most predators are mobile, after all, and by upending their lives, the law may make them more likely to commit other offenses, critics say.
"We should be concerned when we pass laws for political purposes that are irrational," said Sarah Geraghty, a staff lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Atlanta-based group that filed court actions against the law's provisions. "This law will essentially render thousands of ex-offenders homeless, and that's just going to make them harder to monitor."
Besides the practical complications, she said, "forcing a terminally ill man to leave his hospice . . . shocks the conscience."
Exactly what to do with convicted sex offenders once they return to the community has been the focus of growing national attention.
Before 1994, only a handful of states required offenders to register their addresses with police. Now all 50 states do, as does the District.
Those lists have focused attention on where the sex offenders live, and as of this summer, 17 states had imposed residency requirements for them, according to research by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
This month, Californians voted to bar sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks -- though a federal judge quickly blocked that provision.
In Iowa, which in 2002 became one of the first states to impose residency restrictions, police and prosecutors have united in opposition to the 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, which represents prosecutors.
"The law was well-intentioned, but we don't see any evidence of a connection between where a person lives and where they might offend," said Corwin R. Ritchie, executive director of the group.
Enforcing the law consumes lots of law enforcement time, he said, and leads some offenders to list interstate rest stops or Wal-Mart parking lots as their addresses.
"Our concern is that these laws may give a false sense of security," said Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "We're not aware of any evidence that residency restrictions have prevented a child from being victimized."
Much of the public fear surrounding sex offenders has arisen from the perception that most commit another offense. But that idea is a "myth," according to the Center for Sex Offender Management, an affiliate of the Justice Department.
Child molesters have a 13 percent reconviction rate for sexual offenses, according to research cited by the group, and rapists have a 19 percent reconviction rate for sexual offenses. Concrete measures of recidivism are difficult to come by, however, because most researchers believe that crimes against children are underreported.
Even amid all the restrictions imposed by states, Georgia's attempt to control the sex offender population stood out.
Among those swept up under its definition of sex offender are a 26-year-old woman who was caught engaging in oral sex when she was in high school, and a mother of five who was convicted of being a party to a crime of statutory rape because, her indictment alleged, she did not do enough to stop her 15-year-old daughter's sexual activity.
Moreover, by prohibiting sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of school bus stops, the law would force all or nearly all the offenders living in some counties to move.
That provision has been suspended, pending a federal court case. A consent order has temporarily halted the evictions of six elderly and disabled sex offenders, including Ruby Anderson's husband, Daniel.
But even without the bus stop provision, 78 of 129 registered sex offenders in Houston County, where the Andersons live, were required to move, according to the sheriff's department there.
Keen and other advocates have defended the legislation, calling it above all an effort to protect children.
"We felt if we were going to err on any side, we were going to err on the side of protecting the innocent rather than those who have already been convicted," he said.
He has no plans to alter it. As for those who feel it unfairly targets them, he said they can petition the local school board to move the bus stop.
Although the legal actions have focused attention on the rights of convicted sex offenders, he noted, the victims "have been given a life sentence."
"There's not a day goes by, if you pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV, that you don't see these crimes continue to happen," he said.
For those affected by the law, however, it seems to have reached too far.
"Every other block, there's a church," Ruby Anderson said. "Where can we go? I've checked."
Her husband, who was a janitor, was charged with statutory rape in 1996 for having sex with a girl younger than 14. He pleaded guilty on one count and was sentenced to probation, according to Houston County court records.
"At this late date for him, the law is very unfair," Ruby Anderson said. "He doesn't have any recollection of what happened."