Senate panel approves sex offender legislation

ATLANTA - Legislation cracking down on sex offenders in Georgia cleared a Senate committee Tuesday, but not before senators eased some restrictions in the version of the bill passed by the House.

Over the objections of House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, the bill's sponsor, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved five amendments aimed at reducing the legislation's potential impact on teenagers involved in consensual sexual relationships.

The changes would allow authorities to charge a sexual "aggressor'' who is 18 or younger with a misdemeanor as long as his or her "victim'' is no more than four years younger and between the ages of 13 and 16.

Gov. Sonny Perdue's office requested the four-year spread, said Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, the committee's chairman.

The underlying bill, first proposed by House Republican leaders last spring, would lengthen prison sentences for sex crimes involving children and strengthen monitoring requirements for sex offenders when they get out of prison.

In presenting the legislation on Tuesday, Keen, R-St. Simons Island, argued that the version of his bill passed by the House already contained enough safeguards to differentiate between teenagers guilty of "immature'' behavior and truly dangerous sexual predators.

He urged senators not to weaken the bill to cover those relatively few cases where teens who haven't committed serious wrongdoing could be sent to prison.

"We cannot govern by exception,'' Keen said. "We have to govern by rule.''

But most committee members appeared to have heeded complaints from civil-rights advocates and others that the House bill would cast too wide a net in an effort to put sex criminals behind bars for a long time.

"A sexual revolution occurred in this country 40 to 50 years ago,'' said Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland. "It's a different morality. ... I am concerned with criminalizing behavior that is, frankly, so common.''

However, the committee also strengthened some portions of the bill and balked at proposals to weaken others.

The panel addressed legal questions surrounding the state's authority to sentence paroled sex offenders to lifetime electronic monitoring if their prison sentences were not for life.

Several amendments adopted Tuesday would allow judges to hand out sentences carrying a maximum of life. Keen's bill had set the range of sentences for most sex crimes against children at 25 to 50 years.

Also, the committee rejected a request by the governor's office to allow some defendants under age 21 to qualify for first-offender status.

Sam Choate, legislative counsel for the House leadership, complained that first offenders are allowed to wipe their records clean, which would make it impossible for authorities to keep track of them after they're released from jail or placed on probation.

The committee also folded into Keen's measure a related bill that had been introduced into the Senate as separate legislation earlier in the session.

It would require the state to issue special driver's licenses to registered sex offenders with some type of marking to indicate their legal status.

Finally, the panel removed from the House bill a provision calling for the state to hire a particular vendor for the electronic monitoring equipment it would issue to paroled sex offenders.

Smith said the legislation could run into a legal challenge down the road if it were drawn to benefit a single business.

The revamped measure could reach the Senate floor by the end of this week.