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Georgia softens once lauded strict sex offender law

ATLANTA -- Georgia was lauded four years ago by conservatives for passing one of the nation's toughest sex offender laws. But the state has had to significantly -- and without fanfare -- scale back its once-intense restrictions.

Georgia's old law was challenged by civil liberties groups even before it took effect. After losing court battle after court battle, state legislators were forced to make a change or a federal judge was going to throw out the entire law. Now that the restrictions have been eased, about 13,000 registered sex offenders -- more than 70 percent of all Georgia sex offenders -- can live and work wherever they want.

Previously, all registered sex offenders were banned from living within 1,000 feet of schools, parks and other places where children gather, essentially driving them either to desolate areas or out of state. At one point, a tent city of homeless sex offenders was discovered in the woods behind a suburban office park.

"Lessening those kinds of restrictions is dangerous -- it could lead to more crime, more offenders," said Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "We know that sex offenders who prey upon children do well in prison because there aren't temptations there. These guys get into the community, they begin to fantasize as they encounter kids in the community, and they lead to new offenses."

Across the country, states are trying to figure out how far they can legally go to keep convicted sex offenders away from children. High-profile cases of registered sex offenders being accused of re-committing crimes only increases the legislative pressure.

Georgia's strict law ran into trouble because it cast too wide a net, targeting sex offenders that committed their crimes years before the tough law was passed in 2006.

Kelly Piercy, who was convicted of child pornography in 1999, was ousted from his Columbus home because he lived too close to a church. He spent three weeks searching before he and his wife found a beat-up trailer down a dusty dirt road in northeast Georgia. In April, he bought a two-bedroom home in a small east Georgia community surrounded by farmland.

"We didn't want to ever worry about being forced to move again," said Piercy, who leads the advocacy group Georgians for Reform, which presses for an overhaul of the state's sex offender laws. "Turns out I could have waited and bought anywhere."

Piercy believes sex offenders' living restrictions should be reviewed case-by-case.

"There are dangerous people in the world. Our concern is that this blanket removal is going to potentially leave some of the dangerous people now unmonitored and potentially place the community at risk," he said. "We've created bad legislation and now we're trying to fix it. And regrettably, we've somewhat complicated matters."

Indeed, Georgia's law even perplexes police.

"Our deputies are trying their best to enforce this law," said Tonia Welch, the training coordinator with the Georgia Sheriffs Association. "And with the way the changes have been, it has caused confusion. Every time they get situated, the laws change, and then they have to shift gears."

Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the changes into law in May, allowing the 13,000 or so registered sex offenders who committed their offense before June 4, 2003, to live wherever they choose. The date was picked because that's when the state's first sex offender overhaul took effect. Those restrictions were then strengthened three years later.

The tough restrictions still apply to about 5,000 or so sex offenders who committed their offenses after 2003, but they, too vary. For instance, sex offenders who committed their crimes between June 4, 2003, and June 30, 2006, can live within 1,000 feet of churches and swimming pools, but those who committed their crimes after July 1, 2006, cannot.

"The bottom line was that the hammer was about to fall on us, and I was deeply concerned that the entire statute was in jeopardy," said state Sen. Seth Harp, who helped push the latest revision.

The changes in the law also allow some offenders to petition to get off the registry, clear the way for disabled and elderly offenders to be exempt from residency requirements and no longer require sex offenders to hand over Internet passwords.

Iowa has also scaled back some of its restrictions under pressure from the law enforcement community. The 2006 law there banned sex offenders released from prison from living within 2,000 feet of schools and other places where children gathered, but lawmakers revamped it after lobbying from the Iowa County Attorneys' Association.

The new rules leave the 2,000-foot ban in place for the highest-level offenders, such as sexual crimes involving a child. It also set up 300-foot "no loiter" zones that ban all offenders from lingering around the facilities.

"It's better than what we had, but it still fosters a false sense of security," said Corwin Ritchie, the association's executive director. "It does target the predator-type who might be sitting within sight of a school, but we have so many sex offenses going on within people's homes, we forget those type of victims."

Many states are moving in the opposite direction. At least five in 2009 tightened residency restrictions for sex offenders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California and several other states are considering more changes this year.

"It's something that states are still struggling with," said Jill Levenson, a Lynn University professor who specializes in sex offender policies. "One side argues the laws aren't punitive, but the other side of the argument is that once people enter into a plea and agree to something, you can't come back years later and change it."