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Sex sells

Mythic solutions to real problems

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In a July cover story, CL staff writer Scott Henry laid bare the unfair consequences of a bill that became law last year in Georgia. The legislation barred "sex offenders" from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop, which in practical terms meant just about anywhere.

Scott profiled offenders who were suing the state, claiming the law was unconstitutional. Among the plaintiffs were people such as Wendy Whitaker, who's listed as a sex offender because she got caught 10 years ago giving a blowjob to a high school classmate. Soon after Scott's story was published, a federal judge ruled that the bus-stop restriction was unconstitutional. He put that part of the law on hold; I'm betting the courts soon will strike it entirely.

This seems to be a pattern. Time and again, when confronted with real problems, Georgia's politicians invent mythic solutions. Then they're puzzled when the solutions don't work.

Often such bad laws are overturned in court, which costs a lot in legal fees and a lot more in lost prestige for Georgia. But our leaders don't seem to mind because it gives them an opportunity to bleat on about "activist judges" and to start the cycle anew with more bad bills that pander to their constituents.

There are effective ways to cut down on sex offenses. They don't involve being soft; they do involve being smart. One step would be to ensure, amid punishments and restrictions, that offenders have access to treatment, which has been shown to reduce repeat offenses.

But our legislators are unequipped to deal with this kind of issue without going crazy. A friend of mine who knows a lot about the General Assembly explains that it's part of a vicious cycle.

"Nobody is more reviled than sex offenders," he notes. That means lawmakers will never pass bills perceived to go easy on them, so they'll never muster the will to reverse legislation that went too far. The only solution is for legislative leaders to exercise some restraint on their colleagues beforehand.

Fat chance. The problem is that nowadays the craziest bills are backed by those so-called leaders. The bus-stop bill was sponsored by Jerry Keen -- the state House majority leader.

Last week, the Senate approved more sex-offender legislation. Compared with last year's bill, it's innocuous. But it still may be unconstitutional. It bars offenders from taking photographs of children. Its sponsor? Eric Johnson, the highest-ranking Republican in the state Senate.

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