ATLANTA – Halloween signs and legal hurdles tripped up legislation aimed at requiring repeat sexual offenders to wear electronic ankle monitors for life in Georgia that a state House panel examined Wednesday.
Lawmakers are hustling to continue
monitoring sex offenders classified as “sexually dangerous predators” following
a Georgia Supreme Court ruling last year that upended the practice of automatic
lifetime ankle monitoring absent a judge’s sentence.
As a result, more than 400 sex offenders
deemed at risk for committing future crimes had been freed from their lifetime
monitoring punishments as of last October, totaling nearly half of the state’s roughly
1,000 sexually dangerous predators.
House Bill 720 would automatically impose
lifetime electronic tracking on sexual predators with multiple sex-offense
felony convictions. That should keep the state’s most dangerous sexual
predators from flying under the radar while Georgia’s rules on electronic
monitoring are in flux, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steven Sainz.
“This looks at trying to identify the
population that has committed an offense and are most likely to be needing that
additional monitoring,” said Sainz, R-Woodbine.
But the measure does not tackle the
overarching issue of giving judges in Georgia full discretion to include
lifetime ankle monitoring as a form of probation included in an offender’s
original sentence, regardless of whether the crime was a repeat offense, Sainz
He noted that proposal on judicial
discretion may come in a separate bill not yet introduced in the 2020
Currently, Georgia law gives the state
Sexual Offender Registration Review Board sole authority to classify sex
offenders in a way that forces them to wear ankle monitors for life.
That was the arrangement until last
March, when the state’s high court said lifetime monitoring would be
unconstitutional if not part of a judge’s original sentence.
A Georgia Senate study committee recently
recommended changing state law to give judges authority to incorporate lifetime
ankle monitoring into a sentence, which would factor in information provided by
the review board.
Members of a House Judiciary Non-Civil
subcommittee did not vote on Sainz’s bill’s Wednesday amid concerns from some
lawmakers and criminal defense attorneys who objected to the measure’s broad
scope – as well as a last-minute change requiring repeat sex offenders to post warning
signs outside their houses for Halloween.
Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, said
he opposed an amendment to the bill brought Wednesday concerning the Halloween
sign, which would legally have to say: “No candy, treats, or treat-or-treating
at this residence.”
The sign, which McLaurin called a
violation of free-speech protections, would have to be displayed every year on
Oct. 30 and Oct. 31.
“It’s just downright humiliating to have
to post that at your house,” McLaurin said. “And I understand that sexual
offenses are extremely serious. My concern would be that the dignity of a
person – and particularly with regard to their First Amendment interests – is
seriously implicated by this type of statutorily mandated language.”
Sainz said after Wednesday’s hearing that
he plans to keep the Halloween sign requirement but might modify what it says.
The bill could also cast too wide a net
over who might be subject to a lifetime-tracking sentence, McLaurin said. He
noted state law already sets lifetime imprisonment as the maximum punishment
for several violent crimes like murder and rape. Adding separate lifetime
penalties for various sexual offenses could cause legal murkiness, he said.
“My concern is this bill won’t do the
thing it’s supposed to do,” McLaurin said.
Officials on the state review board have
said they’re well-positioned to decide who should merit lifetime monitoring
because the board has comprehensive access to key information like an
offender’s criminal records, psychological profile and behavior history while
But critics argue the review board has
too much leeway to set the stiff punishment, often doing so long after a judge
hands down a sentence or an offender is released from prison. They have also
claimed the review board’s methods for classifying offenders as sexually
dangerous predators are not transparent.
Broadening the kinds of sexual offenses that
could prompt lifetime monitoring could complicate the issue more than
clarifying it, said Jill Travis, executive director of the Georgia Association
of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“We would continue to recommend that the
need for this lifetime monitoring should be tied to individuals’ sexual
dangerous and not a specific crime,” Travis said.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Ed
Setzler, R-Acworth, said he wants to see some tweaks to the bill but expects it
to eventually head to the full committee.