- Georgia passed a new law that lessens restrictions on registered sex offenders
- Hundreds of people are being dropped from Ohio’s list of registered sex offenders because the state’s new sex offender law was ruled unconstitutional
- The US State Department didn’t know it could deny passports to convicted sex offenders
States across the country wrestle with the question of how to best protect the public from repeat sex offenders. News stories like the one about convicted rapist Phillip Garrido holding Jaycee Dugard captive for 18 years as a sex slave have the public pushing for tougher penalties and a closer watch on released sex criminals.
Legislators are finding out, however, there are constitutional and practical limits on how far laws can go to restrict the activity of registered sex offenders.
Georgia Eases Convicted Sex Offender Restrictions
In 2003, Georgia passed a law forbidding registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, child care facilities, parks or other areas where children gather. More restrictions were added in 2006 and 2008, making Georgia’s law one of the toughest in the nation.
People on the sex offender registry couldn’t live near churches, school bus stops, swimming pools or libraries. They also couldn’t work or volunteer at or near a school, child care center, or church. Breaking the law meant at least 10 years in prison.
Civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit challenging the law. They claimed it effectively banished sex offenders from the state.
Also, unlike laws in other states, Georgia’s law didn’t distinguish between violent offenders, like rapists, and lower level offenders, like teenagers who had consensual sex. Many sex offenders would have to move even though they posed little threat to their communities.
Attorneys argued that Georgia’s law violated the US Constitution's ban on ex post facto, after the fact, laws: States can’t pass laws increasing the punishment for a crime after it’s committed. Lawyers argued it was unjust for sex offenders who had already served time or probation to get added punishment years later of having to move out of their homes.
After court rulings blocked several parts of the law, Georgia lawmakers decided to make changes before a judge threw out the entire thing. A new law that eases some restrictions was signed by the Governor in May 2010.
The recent revisions let about 13,000 of the state’s registered sex offenders live and work wherever they want. The tougher restrictions still apply, though, to about 5,000 offenders who committed their crimes after 2003.
Hundreds Dropped from Ohio List of Sex Offenders
Hundreds of convicted molesters and rapists in Ohio are being pulled off that state’s list of registered sex offenders. They’re being reclassified because Ohio’s sex offender law was ruled unconstitutional.
Before 2008, sex offenders in the state were classified by courts according to Megan’s Law. Judges decided on an individual basis whether to rank an offender as a low-risk sexually oriented offender, an intermediate-risk habitual sexual offender, or a high-risk sexual predator. Different registration and reporting rules applied to each classification.
The law changed in 2008 to adopt the requirements of the Adam Walsh Act. Under the new law, offenders were classified based solely on their convicted offenses. The law applied retroactively so the state Attorney General reclassified 26,000 offenders already classified by judges under Megan’s Law.
Thousands of lawsuits challenged the new law. In June 2010, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the reclassification was unconstitutional. Allowing the state Attorney General to replace classifications given by judges violated the Ohio Constitution’s separation-of-powers requirement.
Reclassification the Right Way
Officials are now in the process of changing the status of offenders back to their old classifications to comply with the court’s ruling. Many offenders are being dropped to lower classifications with reduced registration and reporting requirements. The photos and addresses of at least 500 offenders are being removed from the state’s online registry web site.
The return to the old classifications has some victims’-rights advocates worried it’ll be harder to monitor dangerous offenders. However, civil rights groups say the reclassifications should raise few safety concerns because offender registration does little to protect the public.
According to the US Department of Justice, most sexual crimes are committed by relatives, friends, babysitters, or other persons known by the victim or the victim’s family. Keeping an eye on the list of registered sex offenders might not protect against the most likely situations of sexual assault.