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'This court disagrees'

Controversial sex-offender law takes beating from federal judge

Scarcely a year since its Republican backers touted it as a strong tough-on-crime measure, Georgia's harsh new sex-offender law appears increasingly likely to be defanged by the courts, the state Legislature and even the federal government.

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Last Friday, a federal judge in Atlanta cleared the way for a major court challenge of the new law – and signaled his apparent intent to overturn some of the most controversial aspects of the statute.

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Using surprisingly direct language, U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper notes in his ruling that attorneys for the state have argued the law's draconian residency requirements do not represent an unconstitutional piling-on of punishment for sex offenders, many of whom have already completed their sentences and probation.

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In his ruling, Cooper bluntly writes: "This Court disagrees." His succinct wording leaves little doubt where he stands on the issue.

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Cooper also hints that he considers the measure – which prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of one of the state's more than 10,000 school bus stops – to be tantamount to banishment from Georgia, which has long been held unconstitutional.

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Altogether, the judge's ruling sends the message to lawmakers that the bus-stop provision – which Cooper blocked from being enforced before the law could take effect last July – is effectively DOA. He likewise casts doubt that he will uphold a similar provision that bars sex offenders from living near a church.

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Lisa Kung, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which brought the suit against the state last year, hopes Cooper's ruling will persuade the state Attorney General's office to back off its defense of the law. "The judge is using his opinion to give a pretty clear indication of where this case is heading," she says.

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Another sign of the writing on the wall could be Senate Bill 249, a Republican-sponsored measure to exempt some registered sex offenders from having to abide by the residency restrictions imposed by the current law. Those exempted would include nursing home residents, the disabled and the very sick and elderly, providing that they had served their sentences at least 10 years earlier.

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The bill, which passed the Senate without opposition but stalled in the House, is championed by Georgia county sheriffs, a group whose misgivings were largely ignored last year by the law's author, Rep. Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island.

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The Senate bill "recognizes the fact that some people on the sex-offender registry no longer pose a risk to the public," explains Sara Totonchi, spokeswoman for the Southern Center.

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The fact that the bill was pushed by Republicans shows that the GOP is divided on the take-no-prisoners stance of Keen's law.

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The tide of public opinion may also be turning against the law. When 6-year-old Christopher Michael Barrios was found murdered last month outside a Brunswick trailer park – allegedly abused and strangled by a father-and-son team of convicted child molesters – Keen went to the House well to proclaim the pair would not have been allowed to live next door to the boy if the bus-stop provision had been in force.

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What Keen neglected to mention was that the boy's father, with whom he lived, was also a registered sex offender. The remote trailer park was one of the few places the elder Barrios – and the accused murderers – could find to live under Keen's law.

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"These kinds of laws create clusters of sex offenders," Totonchi says.

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That irony was not lost on the Valdosta Daily Times, hardly a bastion of liberalism, which in a recent op-ed put part of the blame for Barrios' murder on a law it had predicted "would do far more harm than good."

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"When being wrong leads to our youngest residents falling prey to child molesters, we think being wrong is tantamount to criminal negligence," the op-ed concluded.

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Even the feds are taking a bite out of Keen's law. A law passed last fall will force states to make distinctions between severity of sex crimes, placing offenders in three groups according to risk level, a move Keen resisted when passing his bill last year.

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"The Legislature has to step up and distinguish between risk levels and remove the thousands of people from the registry who pose no risk," Kung says. "Right now, the registry is bloated, which makes it of no use to anybody."



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