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Sex offender bill easily clears Senate

ATLANTA - Convicted sex offenders who victimize children would face longer prison sentences under legislation the Senate adopted overwhelmingly Friday.

Once they do get out of jail, the bill also would require the worst offenders to submit to electronic monitoring for the rest of their lives.

"As public servants, we're here to concentrate on protecting children who can't protect themselves,'' said Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, who carried the measure in the Senate.

Cracking down on sex criminals has been a priority for Republicans in Georgia since last spring, when House GOP leaders first unveiled the

proposal.

That announcement came just weeks after a convicted sex offender was arrested in Augusta and charged with the slaying of a 9-year-old Florida girl.

The legislation sets mandatory prison sentences of 25 to 50 years for defendants convicted of a variety of sex crimes involving children under age 14.

In the most serious cases, sentences could range up to life. The Senate Judiciary Committee inserted that provision to make it legally permissible to require lifetime electronic monitoring for those offenders following parole.

The Senate panel also softened the bill's impact by adding several "Romeo and Juliet'' provisions designed to spare teenagers engaged in consensual sexual relationships from being hit with the severe penalties reserved for dangerous sexual predators.

Another Senate change would require the state Department of Driver Services to develop a special mark to be placed on the driver's licenses of registered sex offenders.

"They won't be a scarlet letter,'' said Sen. John Wiles, R-Marietta. "But (police) will be able to look at it and wonder why they're not where they're supposed to be.''

But the most controversial aspect of the legislation is a provision prohibiting registered sex offenders from living or working within 1,000 feet of schools, child care centers, playgrounds and other places where children congregate.

The ban also would include school bus stops, which prompted some rural sheriffs to complain that it would effectively chase sex offenders out of heavily populated urban and suburban neighborhoods into the countryside.

"People do finally get out of jail,'' said Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah, the only senator who voted against the bill. "Where will they go? Where will they work?''

Wiles conceded that sex offenders might have to move from homes they've occupied for years if a business that caters to children locates near them.

"It's a bad result,'' he said. "But they did a bad thing ... and the evidence is these people re-offend.''

The bill, which passed the House last month, now goes back to the lower chamber.

However, with the Senate having made extensive changes to the House version, the measure is likely headed for a conference committee.