ATLANTA - The House overwhelmingly approved a long-promised crackdown Thursday on sex offenders in Georgia, passing legislation Republican leaders vowed would be the nation's toughest against criminals who prey upon children.
The 144-27 vote capped a four-hour debate and sends the bill on to the Senate.
The measure would lengthen prison sentences for a series of sex crimes against children younger than 14, and increase monitoring requirements so authorities could keep track of sex offenders when they finally do get out of jail.
House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, announced last spring that he would take charge of crafting the bill following the highly publicized kidnapping and murder of a 9-year-old Florida girl. A convicted sex offender arrested in Augusta confessed to the crime.
"We have already seen the example in Florida of what happens when somebody falls off the radar screen,'' said Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, which approved the bill earlier this week.
Ralston outlined changes that were made to the measure as it went through his committee, including giving judges some leeway with so-called "Romeo and Juliet'' situations involving consensual sex between teenagers.
But the bill's opponents said judges still wouldn't have enough flexibility in every case to guarantee that youths who aren't criminals, but make mistakes, wouldn't be ensnared by tough provisions aimed at hard-core sexual predators.
"A mandatory 25-year sentence for a 17-year-old boy having sex with his 13-year-old girlfriend is bad policy,'' said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur.
Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, said the bill wouldn't even have its intended effect on the adult criminals it is aimed at stopping.
He said accused sex offenders facing up to 50 years in prison would demand trials rather than negotiate guilty pleas, which would force child victims and their parents to choose between going through the trauma of testifying in court or letting the case drop and the criminal go free.
"The bill is tough, but it's not very smart,'' Bordeaux said.
Echoing concerns about the bill expressed by defense lawyers and experts on the treatment of sex offenders, other opponents questioned the costs to the prison system of imposing longer sentences, and the lack of a treatment component in the measure.
But Ralston said such arguments ignore the children who fall prey to sex criminals.
"I've listened to the wailing and the hand wringing, but I haven't heard a lot of concern for the victims,'' he said at the end of Thursday's debate. "They don't get 25 years. They have to deal with the effects of this conduct for the rest of their lives.''