Georgia’s sex offender laws are clear in some respects.
They explicitly say, for instance, that sex offenders have to register once a year on their birthday and let the sheriff’s office know every time they plan to move.
What confuses the public, those on the registry and even law enforcement are the different time periods that dictate what privileges sex offenders are allowed, said Columbia County sheriff’s Investigator David Rush.
People call him in an uproar when a sex offender moves into a house across the street from a church or school, but that’s allowable if the sex offense occurred before 2003.
“A lot of times, people don’t like the answers they get,” Rush said.
He is charged with keeping tabs on all sex offenders in Columbia County. He also heads the regional sex offender task force for the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, which brings him in contact almost daily with investigators around the area with questions about sex offender law or related issues.
Rush makes regular trips through the county to check on its 90 registered sex offenders. (Richmond County holds about 375 of the 20,440 sex offenders registered in Georgia.) The law doesn’t require these checks, but Columbia County is one of many sheriff’s offices that dedicate someone to this task.
Rush says some of the confusion in the law stems from the fact that residency restrictions are based on the time the offense was committed, not a conviction date.
The changes in 2010 break things up further. Anyone who committed an offense before June 4, 2003, does not have to follow any restrictions on where they can live or work. An offense committed between 2003 and June 30, 2006, means an offender cannot live within 1,000 feet of facilities “providing services or programs directed toward persons under 18 years of age.”
The restrictions on offenses between July 1, 2006, and June 30, 2008, are the familiar ones that keep offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a child-care facility, church, school or playground.
For offenses after 2008, “public library” is added to the list, and the law keeps offenders from volunteering at a child care facility, school or church.
“It’s somewhat confusing because of the different time periods we’re dealing with,” Rush said. “Most people are familiar with the old law.”
Rush divides his checks according to zones; on a recent morning, he covered a large area that starts in Harlem.
His first stop is a squat rectangular house with a long gravel driveway on George Walton Drive. Most of the offenders are at work during these daytime checks, and that’s the case with this one. Rush returns to his car and makes a check on his clipboard.
In about an hour he has visited four homes and chatted with a sex offender taking a stroll along the roadside. Each meeting is less than five minutes, just a friendly but obvious reminder that someone is watching their actions.
Rush has developed a rapport with most of these offenders after four or five years.
“They know I’m fair. I tell them when I first register them to call me with any questions,” he said. “Do whatever you’re supposed to do, and there are no problems.”
Most of them follow that advice, but there are absconders. Rush recalls the time he got lost trying to find a house deep in the woods off a dirt road. After several passes, he realized the sex offender’s house had been bulldozed. That’s what folks in the investigation business call a clue, he said jokingly.
Not complying with the terms of the sex offender registry is a felony that carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. Giving false information about a sex offender’s whereabouts to an investigator is a felony with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Rush reads that law to friends and family members who hesitate with their answers.
Years of working in tandem with sex offenders has bred some sympathy for their situation. Rush makes mention of a disabled veteran and an unemployed sex offender struggling with his wife’s medical bills.
There’s the stigma to live with, too, especially in small towns.
“They know how the general population feels about them,” Rush said. “They stay in their homes, but when they go out in public, occasionally somebody will say something.”