When Georgia's legislature drew up a list of places where sex offenders were not allowed to live, the majority leader of the state House said he hoped the restrictions would be so intolerable that sex offenders "will want to move to another state." By overturning those restrictions, the Georgia Supreme Court has created an opportunity to reconsider the mindless harsher-is-better approach they exemplified, which is neither fair as a matter of criminal justice nor sensible in terms of public safety.
Despite all the talk of protecting children, registered sex offenders are not synonymous with predatory criminals, let alone child molesters. In Georgia, they include many people who were guilty of nothing beyond consensual sex as teenagers.
Even if they have never demonstrated a propensity to abuse children, the 10,000 or so sex offenders covered by the registration requirement have to regularly report their whereabouts to local law enforcement officials, who in turn make the information publicly available. Failure to report triggers a prison sentence of at least 10 years.
Yet, until the Georgia Supreme Court intervened, sex offenders also had a strong incentive not to register since doing so enabled the government to enforce residence restrictions that made nearly all locations in urban areas off limits. The penalty for violating those restrictions was the same as the penalty for failing to register.
Georgia's law barred sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, church, daycare center or any other location where children might congregate, including parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, skating rinks and school bus stops. Even if a sex offender managed to find a legal place to live, he could be ordered to move again and again, depending on how his neighbors decided to use their property.
Anthony Mann, the registered sex offender who successfully challenged Georgia's law, bought a house in Clayton County with his wife in 2003. At the time, it was a legal location. But then a daycare center opened nearby, rendering it illegal.
"Under the terms of that statute," the state Supreme Court noted, "there is no place in Georgia where a registered sex offender can live without being continually at risk of being ejected." Concluding that the law "precludes appellant from having any reasonable investment-backed expectation in any property purchased as his private residence," the court unanimously ruled that it violated the Fifth Amendment's ban on uncompensated takings of private property.