Georgia’s sex offender registry is not perfect.
However, it is necessary.
State laws have made it illegal for child sex offenders to live or work in locations where parents should have the expectation their children are safe, including playgrounds, churches or schools.
In 2012, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation requiring sex offenders be categorized based on the potential danger they pose to the general public. Sex offenders are separated by risk levels that distinguish between a person who has been convicted of rape and a teenager who may have had consensual sex with another underage teenager, for instance.
Delineating between types of offenses was the right thing to do.
However, balancing individual liberties of people who have been convicted of a crime, but served out their sentences, while keeping the public safe will always be a challenge.
The biggest problem with the sex offender registry is not that it provides identifying information about offenders.
Breaking the law has its consequences.
As a society we have determined that in the case of convicted sexual offenders, the potential danger to the general public, and especially children, out weighs their rights to resume a normal life after the debt to society is paid.
While we value civil liberties, keeping our children safe is an even more important value.
Restricting where a convicted offender can live and work is no longer about punishment. It is about keeping others safe.
The first problem with the registry is it places too much trust in the honor system.
Requiring an offender to self-register places too much confidence in the offender.
Yes, there are strong penalties for not registering, that oddly can be more severe than the penalties for the actual crime that was committed, but when people choose to live on the fringes of the law, or are simply bent on lawlessness, they are often not concerned about consequences.
We commend the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office for going beyond basic requirements. Still, for an offender who has not been put into the system and is flying under the radar, there is no means of verification.
The next problem with the registry is there is no fail-safe system to guarantee to a community that all sex offenders living there are actually on the registry.
The most serious loophole pertains to the homeless.
No one knows exactly how many homeless sex offenders live in Georgia or in a given community.
A sex offender has 72 hours after conviction or a change of address to notify the sheriff’s department. If they don’t register they could face prison time, simply for not registering. Subsequent failures to register could mean life in prison.
It is an irony, but restrictions against where sex offenders can live and the requirement for them to be placed on a registry have driven many of them to homelessness.
It’s a grim Catch 22 that the laws designed to keep track of sex offenders have made it extremely difficult to find a a place to live, causing them to be homeless and making them more difficult to track. Or cause some offenders to go into hiding.
Restricting the lives of sex offenders may actually compromise their ability to find housing, employment, maintain counseling, treatment and rehabilitation.
Still, despite all the concerns we have about civil liberties and individual rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we simply have to know where these offenders are and what threat they pose to a community.
As a society we must leaven the approach with common sense – with a vigilant eye toward fairness and security.