Beau Evans, Capitol Beat News Service
Jul 10, 2020 at 12:34 PM
A landmark court ruling has led to nearly half of Georgia’s most high-risk sex offenders being released from their ankle monitors over the past year, marking a legal quandary that state lawmakers fell short in addressing during the 2020 legislative session.
State officials tasked with recommending how to monitor sex offenders in Georgia say legislation filed in the 2020 session would address the problem going forward by handing final authority to judges, rather than a state-run review board.
But criminal defense attorneys argue the proposal does not include certain legal avenues for sex offenders who often lack the means to appeal their punishments and who would benefit from more focus on treatment than lifetime ankle monitoring.
So far, 520 of 1,108 people in Georgia classified as “sexually dangerous predators” most at risk for committing future sex crimes have been freed from GPS tracking devices, according to Tracy Alvord, executive director of the state Sexual Offender Registration Review Board.
She expects 17 more sexually dangerous predators will be off ankle monitors by the end of this year, leaving local law enforcement agencies and the state Department of Community Supervision to rely more on reports from concerned citizens to monitor sex offenders in lieu of electronic tracking.
“There’s only so much you can do unless someone commits another crime,” Alvord said. “Now, they have less idea unless there’s a report that they’re engaging in some kind of disturbing behavior.”
Legislation brought by Rep. Steven Sainz, R-Woodbine, in the General Assembly session that wrapped up last month was aimed at revising state law on sex-offender sentencing that the Georgia Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in March 2019.
The high court ruled a longstanding practice of electronically monitoring some sex offenders in Georgia after their sentences and probation have been completed should not be allowed to continue, blocking a state law that requires automatic lifetime monitoring for sexually dangerous predators.
The issue centered on a process in which the review board decides how to classify a sex offender based on a risk scale, with the highest risk carrying automatic lifetime monitoring. Those highest-risk offenders mark a fraction of Georgia’s roughly 12,000 sex offenders, according to Alvord.
Sainz’s bill called for making the decision on lifetime monitoring part of a judge’s sentence from the start instead of via the review board. It would have only addressed future sex offenders, not those who have already been released from monitoring.
“My bill was a very tailored approach,” Sainz said. “It intentionally wasn’t a huge number [of offenders], but that number we’re dealing with per year would be the most needed offenders to have that tool long-term.”
House Bill 720 passed out of the state House of Representatives but stalled as lawmakers grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Sainz said he plans to work on the bill with Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, and bring it back for next year’s legislative session.
Critically, the bill proposes automatic lifetime-monitoring sentences for sex offenders who commit more than one felony sex crime such as rape, trafficking, child molestation and child pornography.
But automatic sentencing could prevent judges from imposing penalties on a case-by-case basis, potentially tying the hands of a judge who might opt for lifetime probation or more intensive treatment, said Jill Travis, executive director of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“It completely removes judicial discretion, which we believe is an important feature that should remain in the law,” Travis said. “Individual assessment is key, not just a blanket crime ‘A’ plus crime ‘B’ equals a lifetime monitoring.”
As it stands, Travis said the review board’s process for recommending sex-offender classifications leaves little room for appeal for offenders who often cannot afford legal representation. She said the state should put more resources into behavioral and psychological treatments aimed at curbing recidivism.
“That’s the best thing that should happen,” Travis said. “Strapping a monitor on them for life doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not going to commit another offense.”
But ankle monitors can help local police authorities prevent sex crimes by allowing them to easily determine if a GPS-tracked offender is going somewhere that is off limits like a school or has come into contact recently with people they shouldn’t, said the review board’s Alvord.
She said the intent is to stave off repeated sex crimes while also managing a constant stream of new cases. Each month, the review board receives a list of around 200 new sex offenders from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, Alvord said.
Establishing legally sound rules on ankle monitoring would help state and local authorities keep up with the heavy workload in the effort to protect Georgians from sexual predators, Alvord said.
“Our front-line people do a really, really good job despite the limitations we have legally,” Alvord said. “They’re really having to compensate on waiting for [Sainz’s bill] before it goes through.”