ATLANTA – Halloween signs and legal hurdles tripped up legislation aimed at requiring repeat sexual offenders to wear electronic ankle monitors for life in Georgia that a state House panel examined Wednesday.
Lawmakers are hustling to continue monitoring sex offenders classified as “sexually dangerous predators” following a Georgia Supreme Court ruling last year that upended the practice of automatic lifetime ankle monitoring absent a judge’s sentence.
As a result, more than 400 sex offenders deemed at risk for committing future crimes had been freed from their lifetime monitoring punishments as of last October, totaling nearly half of the state’s roughly 1,000 sexually dangerous predators.
House Bill 720 would automatically impose lifetime electronic tracking on sexual predators with multiple sex-offense felony convictions. That should keep the state’s most dangerous sexual predators from flying under the radar while Georgia’s rules on electronic monitoring are in flux, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steven Sainz.
“This looks at trying to identify the population that has committed an offense and are most likely to be needing that additional monitoring,” said Sainz, R-Woodbine.
But the measure does not tackle the overarching issue of giving judges in Georgia full discretion to include lifetime ankle monitoring as a form of probation included in an offender’s original sentence, regardless of whether the crime was a repeat offense, Sainz said.
He noted that proposal on judicial discretion may come in a separate bill not yet introduced in the 2020 legislative session.
Currently, Georgia law gives the state Sexual Offender Registration Review Board sole authority to classify sex offenders in a way that forces them to wear ankle monitors for life.
That was the arrangement until last March, when the state’s high court said lifetime monitoring would be unconstitutional if not part of a judge’s original sentence.
A Georgia Senate study committee recently recommended changing state law to give judges authority to incorporate lifetime ankle monitoring into a sentence, which would factor in information provided by the review board.
Members of a House Judiciary Non-Civil subcommittee did not vote on Sainz’s bill’s Wednesday amid concerns from some lawmakers and criminal defense attorneys who objected to the measure’s broad scope – as well as a last-minute change requiring repeat sex offenders to post warning signs outside their houses for Halloween.
Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, said he opposed an amendment to the bill brought Wednesday concerning the Halloween sign, which would legally have to say: “No candy, treats, or treat-or-treating at this residence.”
The sign, which McLaurin called a violation of free-speech protections, would have to be displayed every year on Oct. 30 and Oct. 31.
“It’s just downright humiliating to have to post that at your house,” McLaurin said. “And I understand that sexual offenses are extremely serious. My concern would be that the dignity of a person – and particularly with regard to their First Amendment interests – is seriously implicated by this type of statutorily mandated language.”
Sainz said after Wednesday’s hearing that he plans to keep the Halloween sign requirement but might modify what it says.
The bill could also cast too wide a net over who might be subject to a lifetime-tracking sentence, McLaurin said. He noted state law already sets lifetime imprisonment as the maximum punishment for several violent crimes like murder and rape. Adding separate lifetime penalties for various sexual offenses could cause legal murkiness, he said.
“My concern is this bill won’t do the thing it’s supposed to do,” McLaurin said.
Officials on the state review board have said they’re well-positioned to decide who should merit lifetime monitoring because the board has comprehensive access to key information like an offender’s criminal records, psychological profile and behavior history while incarcerated.
But critics argue the review board has too much leeway to set the stiff punishment, often doing so long after a judge hands down a sentence or an offender is released from prison. They have also claimed the review board’s methods for classifying offenders as sexually dangerous predators are not transparent.
Broadening the kinds of sexual offenses that could prompt lifetime monitoring could complicate the issue more than clarifying it, said Jill Travis, executive director of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“We would continue to recommend that the need for this lifetime monitoring should be tied to individuals’ sexual dangerous and not a specific crime,” Travis said.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, said he wants to see some tweaks to the bill but expects it to eventually head to the full committee.