New sex offender law clears House

ATLANTA - The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would reinstate residency restrictions on sex offenders that were thrown out by a recent Georgia Supreme Court decision.

The bill, which passed 141-29 and now moves to the Senate, would prohibit registered sex offenders from living or working within 1,000 feet of a number of places where children tend to gather, including schools, churches, parks and day-care centers.

The General Assembly first adopted those restrictions, considered among the toughest in the nation, two years ago. House Republican leaders introduced the 2006 measure and made it one of their top priorities for that session.

But the state Supreme Court ruled in November that the restrictions violate the property rights of sex offenders who were in compliance with the law at the time they bought their homes, only to have one of the restricted establishments move into their neighborhood later.

This year's bill would exempt homeowners in such situations while continuing to make renters subject to the law.

"We have tried to respond in a very specific and focused way to the concerns the court had," said Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee with jurisdiction over criminal law.

But opponents said treating sex offenders who own their own homes and those who rent in a different way would open up another legal can of worms that would render the new law subject to another lawsuit.

"The court has awarded property rights to renters in previous case law," said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. "We'll be back again and again on (this) issue."

Other critics of the bill argued against the underlying residency restrictions that were a key part of the 2006 legislation.

Rather than keeping sex offenders away from children, they said the bill would chase sex offenders underground where law enforcement agencies wouldn't be able to keep track of them.

"I'd much rather know where these people are," said Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, D-Austell.

Rep. Randal Mangham, D-Decatur, said the bill would force police and sheriff's departments to divert their resources from crime fighting to measuring off residences of sex offenders to make sure they're not inside a restricted location.

"We cannot take valuable dollars to make a political statement," he said.

But Ralston said failing to pass the new bill in the aftermath of the court ruling would continue to leave Georgia without residency restrictions that other states across the Southeast have adopted.

"I have not had one prosecutor, judge, sheriff, police officer, momma or daddy ask me to repeal these residency requirements for sex offenders," he said. "We are trying to protect our children."

Dave Williams can be reached at dave.williams@newtoncitizen.com.