Sex offender statute becomes tormentor

Family’s ordeal shows how Ga. law goes way too far

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Friday, October 31, 2008

Andrew Norton grew up in a brutish household. His stepfather beat him and his brothers and made them watch pornography with him. Norton was forced to sleep at the foot of the bed while his mother and stepfather had sexual relations. After the state eventually intervened and terminated parental rights, Norton was placed in a foster family when he was 13.

Norton, now a married man with two children of his own, has since found solace in his family and his church, where he has been an active volunteer. But the state of Georgia that was once his protector has become his persecutor. After driving him out of four homes in the past four years, state officials now want to drive him out of his church as well.

Back when he was 12 or 13, police allege, Norton committed a sex offense against his half brother (the case is still in dispute in court, roughly a dozen years later). Unless that case is resolved in his favor, Norton will be on the state’s sex offender registry for life. And that means that Norton has no life.

The General Assembly has decreed that anyone who commits a sex offense —- even a minor one —- can’t live near schools, churches, swimming pools, school bus stops, day-care centers, parks, rec centers or skating rinks, or work around schools, churches or day-care centers.

In 2005, Norton and his family were ordered to leave his in-laws’ house because a school was nearby. They moved to a trailer park where they spent $1,500 to render the mobile home safe for their young children, only to be required to move again because there was a swing set within 1,000 feet.

The Nortons then found a home in Austell, where they lived for 10 months before being told to leave because it was too close to a school bus stop. When they couldn’t find another home, the family was forced to split. Norton went to a motel, while his wife and children returned to her parents’ house. Then Norton had to uproot himself again when a church was built near the motel. The reunited family has since found a rental home that complies with all the prohibitions. But officials now want to boot Norton from his church, citing a ban in state law on sex offenders serving as church volunteers.

“During these difficult times, my church community created one of the few steady environments in my life,” Norton stated in his court declaration. “Does it mean that I cannot volunteer to participate in Bible study? Does it mean that I cannot read scripture aloud at church services?”

Norton shared his saga to bolster a legal challenge to the state’s sex-offender law filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights, which contends the law criminalizes religious practice. The case will be heard Nov. 13 in U.S. District Court. The state has already lost several other legal challenges to the overarching law. Just this week, the state Supreme Court threw out a provision of the law that made it a felony for a sex offender to be homeless. Under the law, if a sex offender could not list a specific home address at a local sheriff’s office, he or she could be imprisoned for life.

Under that same law, homeowners on the sex offender list could be forced to sell their homes and move if a day-care center or church moved in near them. The state Supreme Court struck down that provision last year as a violation of property rights protected by the Fifth Amendment. In its legal challenge of the law, the Southern Center intends to argue that renters deserve the same protection.

In another inequity, the law makes no distinction between serious sexual predators and far less egregious sex-related crimes. For example, a 17-year-old who engages in consensual sex with a 15-year-old is subjected to the same severe and lifelong restrictions as a repeat child molester.

The most notable victim of that inequity was Douglas County teen Genarlow Wilson, who was sentenced to 10 years for having oral sex with a 15-year-old when he was 17.

A year ago this week, the state Supreme Court overturned Wilson’s conviction, freeing him after three years in jail. Today, he attends Morehouse College, where he hopes to play football next year. In its zeal to appear punitive, the Legislature has continued to enact hollow laws that do nothing to protect children from sex offenders. In 90 percent of such cases, the perpetrator is not a stranger who lives nearby, but a family member or family friend of the victim.

Federal law does require states to maintain registries of offenders convicted of sex crimes or offenses against children. That law also requires notification of schools, day-care centers and parents when sex offenders move into a community. However, Georgia lawmakers have carried their crusade far beyond what federal law and common sense dictate, passing the most drastic limits in the country on where offenders can live or work.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in Georgia’s approach is its stubborn refusal to acknowledge gradations in the dangers posed by sex offenders. State lawmakers did establish a board of experts to evaluate sex offenders and rank them on the risks they pose to others, but in practice the state ignores those rankings altogether.

Of offenders evaluated thus far by the Georgia Sex Offender Registration Review Board, 65 percent qualify as Level One, which means they pose little threat, says therapist Susan Strickland, who chairs the board. The board opposes any residency or work restrictions for Level One offenders.

The board has categorized 30 percent of the offenders as Level Two, a category in which residency and work requirements are justified, according to Strickland. The remaining 5 percent of offenders are truly dangerous and should be subject to all restrictions as well as lifetime monitoring, she says.

A change in the law would allow police officers to concentrate their time and resources on tracking truly dangerous predators, some of whom have gone underground rather than comply with onerous registration rules. Instead, police find themselves hounding people such as Andrew Norton, who is trying to overcome his own heinous childhood and provide his children a better one.

No comments: