When Republicans gained control of the Georgia House after the 2004 elections, the party leadership saw a political issue they were sure would be a winner: sex offenders.
At the time, there was not any particular problem with sex crimes. Georgia already had laws that imposed lengthy prison sentences on persons who molested children, and district attorneys were eager to prosecute them. There had not been any great scandals where sexual predators were set free to prey on the innocent.
But in the spring of 2005, there had been a brutal slaying in Florida where a 9-year-old girl was senselessly raped and murdered by a sex offender. Legislative leaders seized upon that tragic crime to proclaim that Georgia really needed to get tough with sex offenders.
"We need to review our own laws and make sure they are the toughest in the nation," House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said. "My intent personally is to make it so onerous on those that are convicted of these offenses ... they will want to move to another state."
House Speaker Glenn Richardson agreed: "These are sick people and I think the public has a right to know where they are."
The legislature overwhelmingly passed a sex crimes bill in the 2006 session that probably is the toughest law in the nation. It made prisons sentences even longer, required lifetime electronic monitoring of registered sex offenders, and prohibited offenders from living anywhere near schools, churches or other places where children might gather.
As with any law passed under such political pressure, this one had some unforeseen consequences. A teenager in Douglas County who had consensual sex with a younger classmate was given a 20-year prison sentence (the state Supreme Court ruled that was cruel and unusual punishment and ordered his release).
The residency prohibitions were also struck down by judges who noted that in most counties, it would be physically impossible to find a place to live that wasn’t within 1,000 feet of a church, school or bus stop.
Rep. Howard Maxwell, R-Dallas, is one of the many legislators who voted to pass these measures to get tough on sexual offenders, but his vote came back to haunt him this summer.
One of Maxwell’s friends and constituents, an 86-year-old veteran of World War II, was caught up in a case involving an 11-year-old girl he had met at church and was convicted of child molestation. The man’s attorney called Maxwell and asked if the legislator would testify as a character witness before the judge imposed sentence.
Maxwell quickly agreed and testified during the sentencing hearing that his friend was "nothing but a man of character ... I’ve never heard any problems, any word, any type of discussion, nothing come out against him."
After Maxwell testified for him, the convicted child molester avoided going to prison. The judge instead ruled he could remain at home, under house arrest, so that he could continue to take care of his elderly, ailing wife.
The judge who allowed the child molester to avoid a prison sentence that normally would have been required under the "get tough on sex offenders" law was Paulding Superior Court Judge James Osborne, a former law partner of Richardson’s.
Maxwell’s testimony could cause political problems for him because at least one local TV station reported on it. He acknowledged that he voted for that sex crimes bill, but now contends that it’s one of several state laws that are perhaps too tough.
"This is the whole problem with half the laws we pass, like the two strikes law and zero tolerance in the schools," Maxwell said, referring to a Cobb County school policy that caused a sixth-grader to be suspended because the 10-inch key chain on her Tweety Bird wallet was considered a weapon.
"I don’t particularly like the laws, no," he said. "I think they’re too stringent. I don’t like it that we’ve taken the power to sentence away from the judges, basically. You’ve got to use common sense."
Common sense often goes out the window when our legislators are stampeded into voting for something that seems to be a political winner. They need to be careful how they vote — as this incident shows, actions have consequences.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service at that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays.