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Sex offender crackdown on Legislature's must-do list

ATLANTA - Historically, Georgia lawmakers tend to prefer their sessions during gubernatorial election years to be short and quiet.

In keeping with that pattern, few major issues are virtually guaranteed to land on the legislature's platter during the session that starts on Jan. 9.

But it is as close to certain as anything involving the General Assembly can be that lawmakers won't go home for the year without passing a tough law aimed at sexual offenders who victimize children.

House Republican leaders sent that message way back in May when they announced at the state GOP convention that they would make legislation increasing penalties for sex crimes involving children a major priority in 2006.

In the news at the time was the Jessica Lunsford case involving the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old Florida girl. A convicted sex offender arrested in Augusta one month after she disappeared confessed to the crimes.

"We're going to take people who prey on our children and put them in prison for a long time,'' House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said in a recent interview. "And when they get out, we're going to electronically monitor them as long as they remain in Georgia.''

Keen, R-St. Simons Island, is chief sponsor of a bill that would lengthen prison sentences for a variety of sex crimes - particularly when children are the victims - eliminate probation and limit parole eligibility for many sex offenders and increase monitoring requirements and other restrictions on offenders who have completed their sentences.

An even stricter measure being pushed by Rep. Tim Bearden, R-Villa Rica, would impose a life sentence without the possibility of parole on defendants convicted of rape or aggravated sodomy when the victim is 12 years old or younger.

Concerns raised

While it's a no-brainer in an election year that lawmakers will pass some form of crackdown on sex offenders, the specifics of what will emerge are far less certain.

During two meetings on the issue conducted by the House Judiciary Committee with jurisdiction over criminal law, law enforcement officials, lawyers, civil rights advocates and others raised concerns about the scope and unintended consequences of Keen's bill.

The most frequent complaint was that it's too broad, that while the measure is intended for serious sex criminals, it could also be wielded against teenagers engaged in consensual sex or divorcing parents locked in a child-custody battle.

Current law gives judges and district attorneys the flexibility to take individual circumstances into account when applying the law. The fear is that Keen's bill would take away much of that leeway by imposing mandatory minimum sentences.

"Anybody can get elected going home and saying, 'We threw the book at sexual predators,''' said Gov. Sonny Perdue. "The tough thing is to be wise enough to get the ones we want that need to be gotten.''

The bill's critics also are raising the same objections to the mandatory minimum sentences in Keen's legislation that have come up in the past whenever lawmakers have sought to impose them.

Sara Totonchi, public policy director for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said defendants who receive mandatory sentences may not be placed on parole when they are released from prison and, thus, hit the streets unsupervised.

"We're taking people who have been violent in some way and locking them up, often in violent institutions, and crossing our fingers when they come out that they won't be violent,'' she said.

"We owe it to the victims to look for ways to enhance community safety ... rather than just passing tough-on-crime legislation.''

Live supervision key

Keen's bill aims to resolve that concern with extensive electronic monitoring requirements.

But Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Atlanta, a member of the judiciary panel considering the legislation, said there's no substitute for live supervision.

"It's not the same as having a file open with a parole officer who is keeping track of that person,'' she said. "I'd like to see them have some supervision besides an electronic monitor.''

Others are worried about the price tag that comes with mandatory minimum sentences, from what it costs the state prison system to feed and house inmates for longer periods to what the legal system spends to prosecute defendants in what by definition are high-stakes cases.

"These are the most difficult, time-consuming, intense cases we deal with,'' Joe Hendricks, district attorney for North Georgia's Appalachian Judicial Circuit, told the Judiciary Committee at a hearing last month. "Those become major cases where jury selection takes two days and the trial may last a week.''

Keen said he's willing to work on changes in his complex 35-page bill to satisfy concerns that it casts too wide a net.

"This bill is not intended to lump in teens who engage in inappropriate behavior with adults who go after young people,'' he said.

But Keen isn't worried about the cost issue.

"That's what we build prisons for, to put bad people away from the general population of Georgia,'' he said. "Whatever the cost ends up being ... it's an investment in safety.''