Crime bill would toughen sentences

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s Republican leaders say that passing a law to toughen sentences
for sex offenders who assault children is one of their top goals for the
2006 legislative session.

The measure, sponsored by House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons
Island), would impose a minimum sentence of 25 years for a person
convicted of aggravated child molestation.

The bill also would prohibit a registered sex offender from working
within 1,000 feet of a child care facility, school or other area where
children congregate, toughen sex offender registration requirements, and
require the most dangerous sex offenders to wear tracking devices for the
rest of their lives.

Recent national headlines about particularly heinous crimes against
children have spurred lawmakers across the country to propose tougher sex
offender laws. Many include longer sentences for offenders, residency
requirements and electronic surveillance. Twelve states have passed
legislation in the past two years that mandates satellite tracking of
some sex offenders, according to data from the National Conference of
State Legislatures.

Georgia’s top lawmakers say they plan to support Keen’s bill. Both Senate
President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) and House Speaker Glenn
Richardson (R-Hiram) have pinpointed the sex offender bill as a high
priority for 2006.

Richardson said he and other state lawmakers began discussing ideas for
the bill after hearing about Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year old Florida girl
who was snatched from her bed, raped and buried alive last spring. John
E. Couey, a convicted sex offender, confessed to kidnapping and killing
the girl.

“When I heard that, after I wiped the tears from my eyes, I was mad,”
Richardson said. “I have a daughter about that age. And I said, you know,
that should never happen again. I think that’s probably the genesis for a
lot of the conversations. We said that should not happen in Georgia.”

The proposed bill worries some criminal defense attorneys and therapists
who work with sex offenders. They say they are not convinced that tougher
sentencing and buffer zones that prohibit sex offenders from working near
public places such as bus stops really will increase public safety. And
they argue that lawmakers should factor in the costs of tracking devices
and longer prison terms for sex offenders when considering the bill.

“Georgia already has some of the toughest penalties for offenses in this
country and this bill is not necessary to properly prosecute and punish
offenders,” the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys said in
a memo to legislators.

That argument may not resonate with the public. Several political
scientists predicted the bill would draw widespread support from voters
and earn the state Republican Party points as it gears up for the midterm
elections, including the governor’s race.

“No one ever lost an election in Georgia being too tough on sex
offenders,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University
of Georgia. “This is something that will pass and it will give
Republicans something to point to as an accomplishment. Other items have
been very controversial, such as the voter photo ID bill. This would be a
slam-dunk. … Who would come out against this?”

Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon) said that while he was not
yet familiar with the bill’s details, he believed Democrats would work
with the GOP to pass the measure.

“Given the problems we’ve had with sex offenders with young children, we
should tighten up our laws on anything that would give these people an
opportunity to prey on our children,” Brown said. “In that regard, I
don’t have any problem with the bill. I’d have to look at the details,
but it’s not something I would see our caucus as opposed to.”

Critics, including defense attorneys, human rights activists and
professionals who work with sex offenders, expressed concern about many
of the bill’s provisions last week at a meeting of the House Judiciary
Committee. The defense attorneys association questioned the wisdom of the
proposed mandatory minimum sentences, arguing instead that such cases
needed to be treated individually. The group also cautioned lawmakers
about the cost of longer prison sentences for sex offenders.

Others pointed out that the current draft of the bill did not address
treatment measures for sex offenders.

Several people opposed a provision in the bill that barred sex offenders
from working within 1,000 feet of a place where children congregate. They
argued that in metropolitan areas, it could be virtually impossible for
sex offenders to find a job.

Keen, the bill’s sponsor, said he understood the 1,000-foot restriction
could make life difficult for sex offenders. “I think the protection of
our children from the type of people who commit these type of crimes is
of far greater importance than the convenience of someone who has
committed these crimes,” Keen said.

Senate Republicans also are expected to consider “Amy’s Law” in 2006.
Under that bill, children as young as 10 who commit murder or other
violent crimes could be incarcerated in a juvenile facility until they’re
21 years old. That bill is likely to spark debate among politicians about
whether the bill is too harsh on minors.

© 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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