Ga. Woman Challenges Sex Offender Laws

Wendy Whitaker may not be allowed to live in the 100-year-old bungalow she owns with her husband. The 28-year-old was forced out of the house in 2006 and cannot volunteer at her local church. She says she was arrested for returning home to do her laundry.

Whitaker is a sex offender: When she was a 17-year-old high school sophomore, she had oral sex with a 15-year-old boy.

Whitaker pleaded guilty in 1997 to sodomy and served five years of probation. But she and her husband have been forced to move several times in the last two years because Georgia's sex offender registry laws prevent offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, church, playground, school bus stop or other place where children congregate.

Though she thought recent changes to the state's sex offender laws would let her return to her home, last week, she was told to move again because the house is too close to a church. She says she and her husband have had to put their careers and family on hold because they have moved so many times.

"I know what I did was wrong, but do I really deserve to keep going through this over and over?" said Whitaker, who is the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the registration laws. "Does my husband deserve it? I'm being punished over and over again."

Though Georgia's supreme court in November struck down as unconstitutional an earlier version of the law, the state legislature quickly passed a new version that keeps intact most of the law's strictest provisions. The new law, still considered one of the nation's toughest sex offender laws, went into effect this month.

It is one of a rash of laws enacted by state legislatures in the last several years that restrict where sex offenders can live, and in some cases, bars them from living within 2,500 feet of schools.

"I think it's an excellent step toward protecting the children of Georgia from sex offenders," said State Sen. John Wiles, one of the co-sponsors of Georgia's law.

But unlike many states, Georgia does not distinguish between different types of sex offenders, treating those like Whitaker the way it would any other sex offender. What's more, several experts have argued that many laws targeting sex offenders have backfired, leading to clusters of offenders living in the few areas where they are welcome.

"There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that residence restrictions are effective," said Sarah Geraghty, Whitaker's lawyer at the Southern Center for Human Rights. "There is evidence that residence restrictions destabilize people on the registry and encourage people to abscond."

Fewer than 10 percent of sex crimes against kids are committed by strangers, according to Justice Department statistics; the majority of sex crimes are committed by a person the child knows. Within three years of their release, about 5.3 percent of sex offenders committed another sex crime, according to a Justice Department study.

"Each case should be dealt with on a case by case basis," said Glynda Gowen, also a registered sex offender who'd molested a 12-year-old boy, who faces possible eviction from her mother's home. "But they're not doing that. They're putting us all in one category and treating us the same."

Gowen, who has diabetes and heart disease and underwent a quadruple bypass last year, said she will have nowhere to go if forced out of her mother's house, which is near a church and a park.

"I don't know what I'll do," said Gowen, who said her doctors have told her to live with other people in case of emergency. "I can't work, I have no money coming in."

The new Georgia law makes an exception for those who bought their homes before July 2006. Though Whitaker and her husband bought their house in January 2006, her name was not put on the deed until last year, prompting a local sheriff to order her to leave within 48 hours.

The sheriff has agreed to let Whitaker stay in her house until the case is resolved, her lawyer said.

In 2006, Whitaker and her husband moved in with her brother-in-law. They were then forced to move out of state, she said, because the brother-in-law's home was too close to a bus stop.

After the state supreme court struck down the law, they moved back to their home in Harlem, Ga. "We've had to pay a mortgage in our house and then rent places to live. It's a strain on our marriage," she said.

Whitaker has asked a federal court for an injunction barring the government from kicking her out. In court papers, the state attorney general said she should seek relief from being evicted in the state courts.

Wiles, the state senator, said that while certain individuals may have compelling stories, "we deal with laws that impact all citizens. A balance was struck. This is a law that was designed to protect all citizens and that's what this law does."

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