Georgia's sex offender law creates confusion

By ELIZABETH MELVILLE elizabeth@newnan.com School is back in session in Coweta County and some parents are concerned by how close registered sex offenders can live to their children's schools. Georgia's sex offender law has changed many times in the past decade -- and that's created some confusion about the rules by which registered offenders must abide.
Amanda Thompson lives in Coweta, and her 3-year-old child is going to preschool this year. "I regularly check the Family Watchdog site that tells you where the sexual offenders live in your area," said Thompson. "I was shocked to see that many of the Coweta County schools have child molesters living within a mile of the school." Her recent visit to familywatchdog.com -- a site that gets its information from the Coweta County Sheriff's Office -- most recently showed that at least eight sex offenders live within a mile from Coweta County schools -- the majority of which are elementary schools. "I was outraged," said Thompson. "How is this allowed? "It's sad that you have to worry about things like this," she continued. "A lot of people have no idea how close these people are to their children." Coweta Sheriff's Investigator Amy Hughes says that sites like Family Watchdog and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations' "Offender Watch" are updated with information provided by the sheriff's office -- but that they're not always current and, therefore, accurate. "We maintain the information, which changes on a daily basis," said Hughes. Hughes single-handedly maintains Coweta's sex offender registry. On Monday, the list consisted of 121 people. It's typically 120-125 people. Coweta has one offender who has been categorized a "sexually dangerous predator" by the state, and this individual is monitored more closely than other sex offenders on the registry. He does not live near a school, according to Hughes. She does know of at least one man on the registry who lives directly across the street from an elementary school. What does the law say about where sex offenders are allowed to live? The rule is generally that a sex offender can't live within 1,000 feet of a child care facility, a school or a church. The law is admittedly confusing, even Hughes has to reference it to know what laws pertain to which offender. That's mainly because residency restrictions are different for each sex offender depending on the date of the crime they committed. The categories include: Crimes committed prior to June 4, 2003; between June 4, 2003 - June 30, 2006; July 1, 2006 - June 30, 2008; and July 1, 2008, or after. Those offenders who committed a crime prior to June 4, 2003, have no residency or employment restrictions. In the years after, the state's legislature enacted strict rules that made it nearly impossible for sex offenders to find suitable residency. The most recent legislative action has been to relax those restrictions. Hughes doesn't always agree with the law, but it's her job to enforce it. She agrees that some of the sex offenders who committed crimes prior to June 2003 need residency restrictions. Registered sex offenders are reminded that they must register in any state where they are employed, volunteer, practice a vocation or are a student. A sex offender changing any required information, other than his or her residence address, must give the new information to the sheriff's office within 72 hours of the change of information. When moving, a sex offender must provide his or her new address to the sheriff's office 72 hours prior to moving. Sex offenders who move to another county and fail to notify the local sheriff's office can be arrested and charged with failing to register as a sex offender. Hughes said the sheriff's office receives complaints regularly from citizens who want to force a sex offender out of their neighborhood. While she understands the complaint, the public needs to be reminded that these men and women also have rights and protections. A law passed in 2010 enables sex offenders who meet certain criteria to petition to be removed from the sex offender list after a designated length of time. Locally, no one has attempted a petition yet, though Hughes has handed out sample petitions. Others have been removed from the list because they were convicted under first offender status and successfully completed their probation. Still, one person can't monitor more than 120 people very closely. Residency verifications are conducted by Hughes, but she asks concerned members of the public to always help her keep an eye on the sex offenders living nearby -- and keep her apprised of any changes, discrepancies or suspicious behavior. To view the complete sex offender list for Coweta and the State Sexual Offender Registry Law (42-1-12), visit the GBI's website, gbi.georgia.gov. To report any violation by a sex offender, contact Hughes at the sheriff's office, 770-253-1502.


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