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"Where are they going to go?

Not even a week after the new sex offender restrictions took effect in Georgia, law enforcement officials are admitting they would have trouble following the letter of the law even if they had all the time and resources they wanted.

Last Thursday, however, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper temporarily blocked part of the law that would have made it the toughest restrictions on sex offenders in the country. He will hear arguments on July 11 to decide whether parts of the law are unconstitutional.

Thomson resident Wendy Whitaker is one of a handful of plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit to stop the law altogether. Ms. Whitaker pleaded guilty to consensually having oral sex with a 15-year-old boy 10 years ago when she was 17.

Potentially hundreds of sex offenders across the state will be forced to move under the new law that went into effect July 1. The McDuffie County Sheriff's Department began preparing for the law over a month ago, but they may still have a tough time enforcing it.

"They passed the law, and I don't think they realized the effect it was going to have on 159 sheriffs in Georgia," said McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall. "...Of course I'm all for protecting children, and we need to do as much as we can. But I think they didn't look at the wide range of it."

The law prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of places children frequent, such as churches, schools, parks and child-care centers. But it's the provision about school bus stops - the one blocked by Judge Cooper - that officials say would be the toughest to enforce.

There are more than 12,300 registered sex offenders in Georgia, and of those, 34 live in McDuffie County, according to Sheriff's Department records. That roughly equates to one offender for every 638 people in the county and one offender for every 170 children under the age of 18.

Also, there are 1,140 school bus stops in McDuffie County, according to school system records. But the routes can change from year to year and even multiple times during the school year.

"That law itself will require many of the folks statewide to move," said Terry Norris, vice president of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association.

Most likely, sheriffs' offices will enforce the law as they receive complaints about registered sex offenders living somewhere they aren't allowed.

According to Maj. Ronnie Williamson - who is in charge of organizing the McDuffie County's compliance with the law - citizens will have to keep watch where the deputies cannot.

"I think the intent of the law was good, controlling them, confining them, but I kind of think it missed its purpose in certain aspects," Maj. Williamson said.

The civil liberties groups leading the suit to overturn the new law are saying it will be "catastrophic" for families statewide.

"Unless the act is enjoined, plaintiffs, and hundreds, if not thousands, of others will become homeless," attorneys argued in a motion for the restraining order.

If sex offenders aren't allowed to live in more urban areas - where there are more people and thus more school bus stops, churches and schools - they might migrate to more rural areas, experts predict.

"Whether that happens or not, we don't know," Mr. Norris said. "We did conclude and feel that it could happen."

Law enforcement officials say they are prepared for a mass migration of sex offenders to more rural areas, where they can more easily find places to live more than 1,000 feet from school bus stops and churches.

"With the school bus provision up in Fulton County, if I'm not mistaken, I think every sex offender they have on their registry would have to move if this law went into effect," Maj. Williamson said. "Where are they going to go? They're going to go to rural counties where sheriff's offices are not that large and taxed to the limit already."

In addition to living and working requirements for sex offenders, the new law also mandates sentences of at least 25 years in prison and lifetime probation for crimes such as aggravated child molestation or aggravated sexual battery. Also rape, regardless of the victim's age, will carry the same punishment.

Offenders who are considered sexual predators will have to wear - and pay for - an electronic monitoring device for the rest of their lives.

Sponsors of the measure responded to other criticisms that the bill's original wording would snare teens engaging in consensual sex acts alongside child molesters.

As a result, the final law allows some teens - starting at 13 - to be charged with misdemeanors and not to have to register as sex offenders as long as the two participants are not more than four years apart in age.

Web posted on Thursday, July 6, 2006

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