Archive for April 14, 2010

Sex-offender Law Harms Those it is Supposed to Protect

April 14, 2010 Comments off

AtlantaJournalConstitution: Sex-offender law harms those it is supposed to protect.

Phillip Garrido kidnapped 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard in 1991 as she walked to her bus stop. For the next 18 years, Garrido imprisoned Jaycee and used her as his personal sex slave.

In 1977, 44-year-old filmmaker Roman Polanski plied a 13-year-old girl with alcohol and drugs and then forced himself upon her. After his recent arrest in Switzerland, he may finally have to answer for that crime.

In a horrible case here in Georgia, convicted child molester George Edenfield, his mother and his father face charges of kidnapping and molesting 6-year-old Christopher Barrios, then strangling him with bare hands.

And in another Georgia case, Wendy Whitaker, a 17-year-old high school student, was arrested and pleaded guilty to sodomy for performing consensual oral sex on a 15-year-old male classmate. She was put on probation.

Now, one of these cases is not like the others. While crimes of sexual violence and abuse of children are among the most vile that humans commit, a sexual act between two consenting teenagers does not logically fall into that same category.

You can see that. I can see that. But in many ways, Georgia law is forbidden to see that. It is written so broadly that it requires Whitaker and others who pose little or no danger to children be subject to the same restrictions regarding residence and jobs as those convicted of violent offenses and molestation.

Under that law, Garrido, Edenfield, Polanski and Whitaker would all be forbidden to live within 1,000 feet of a church, school, swimming pool, day-care center, park, rec center, skating rink or any other place where children might gather, a law that can make it almost impossible to find a legal place to live.

All of them also would be included on the state’s sex-offender registry, their faces and addresses publicly available for neighbors and potential employers.

Garrido, Edenfield, Polanski deserve all that and more. Whitaker does not. And hers is far from an isolated case of injustice.

Roughly 16,000 people are listed on the Georgia sex-offender registry, and according to the Georgia Sex Offender Registration Review Board, an official body, their criminal records and psychological backgrounds suggest that most are not dangerous.

The board has concluded that 65 percent of those on the registry pose little threat; another 30 percent are potentially threatening and just 5 percent are clearly dangerous. (By law, those deemed most dangerous must wear electronic ankle bracelets for the rest of their lives.)

With 16,000 on the registry, those numbers mean that more than 10,000 Georgians are forced to live under draconian restrictions that are disproportionate to the crime they committed and disproportionate to the risk they pose to others.

It includes people such as Jake Reiner, who as a teenager kidnapped a 17-year-old girl so he could rob her of marijuana she was trying to sell. It was a dumb act, a criminal act. But it was not a sex crime and it did not make Reiner a sexual predator.

But because the case involved false imprisonment of a minor, Reiner is listed as a dangerous sex offender, forced to abide by the same restrictions as a multiple rapist or child molester.

The law is not merely unjust; it endangers those it is supposed to protect. Instead of concentrating on offenders who pose a serious risk, law enforcement is forced to waste time and energy tracking the far less harmless, such as Whitaker and Reiner.

And tragically, the law is indirectly responsible for the brutal death of the Barrios boy. The Edenfield family charged in his murder was forced to leave its previous home because it was too close to a park. They moved into a trailer park in Brunswick, across the street from Christopher’s grandmother, and a few months later the little boy’s body was found wrapped in plastic.

Our state legislators know all this. Experts have told them the law serves little or no protective function, because a sexual predator intent on finding victims will do so regardless of where he or she is forced to live. The courts have told them that the law is grossly disproportionate and have overturned parts of it. Other parts are still under challenge. Law enforcement has testified that they could protect more children if they could concentrate on actual threats.

It doesn’t matter. The law was passed as political grandstanding, and legislators are reluctant to be seen backtracking from it. Earlier this year, though, they did pass a new law making it illegal for a person on the sex-offender registry to serve on a school board.
Just in case, you know.