AT A GLANCE
The number of sex offenders allowed to remove their names from Georgia's sex offender registry has increased since changes in the state's law took effect in July 2010.
July 2010 through October 2011 -- 819
2009 -- 536
2008 -- 514
2007 -- 479
Source: Georgia Bureau of Investigation
To see the state's registry, go to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation website www.gbi.georgia.gov and click on the sex offender link.
Hundreds more sex offenders have been allowed to remove their names from Georgia's registry since the state's law was relaxed more than a year ago.
More than 800 names have been taken off the registry since July 2010 when state laws were amended to give sex offenders who were convicted of crimes that are now considered misdemeanors a chance to clear their names. Nearly 300 were removed as a direct result of changes to the law.
But the new law also makes it easier for offenders who committed felonies such as child molestation and rape to disappear from the public eye if they meet the state's lengthy qualifications and get a judge's approval.
Once removed from the registry, offenders also could be freed from restrictions on where they can live, work or volunteer.
Georgia's sex offender registry law -- once considered one of the nation's toughest -- was challenged by civil liberties groups and critics claiming it was unconstitutional. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, led the effort that resulted in last year's changes.
From 2007 to 2009, an average of 510 sex offenders per year had removed their names from the state's registry, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Allowable reasons for removal included death, deportation or being a first-time offender who had completed probation and all other state requirements and gone an additional 10 years without another offense.
But since the law changed, the names of 819 sex offenders have been removed from the list. Their names no longer can be found in the state's registry that anyone can access online to locate offenders.
This gives sex offenders considered to be low or no risk to society a chance at a more normal life and removes their stigma, advocacy groups and some authorities say.
But others worry that these offenders will commit another sexual crime.
"It's kind of like a judge granting a bond," said Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Kermit McManus. "There is a calculated risk."
MANY TO MONITOR
More than 20,000 sex offenders are registered in Georgia.
Within each county, the sheriff's office is responsible for monitoring where each offender lives and whether he or she is following the state's guidelines.
Of that 20,000, only 244 offenders are considered violent sexual predators required to wear a monitor for life, GBI statistics show. The rest of the offenders are considered a low or moderate risk or have never been assessed and assigned a risk level, officials say.
"That's a lot of people for the sheriff's office [to monitor]," said Tracy Alvord, executive director of Georgia's Sex Offender Registration Review Board. "They need to be spending time on violent offenders."
That's where the changes to the law kick in, Alvord said.
According to the Georgia Code, sex offenders who qualify to have their cases reviewed and their names possibly removed from the registry now include:
• Those at low risk to repeat an offense. The risk assessment takes into consideration the offender's age and how many years have elapsed since he committed the crime.
• Those convicted of a kidnapping that wasn't sexual in nature;
• Those who fall under the state's "Romeo & Juliet" clause for statutory rape. If the victim is between 14 and 16 and the convicted person is 18 or younger and no more than four years older than the victim, then the crime is considered a misdemeanor.
• The disabled;
• A person sentenced for a crime that became punishable as a misdemeanor on or after July 1, 2006.
Other requirements within these categories are lengthy and range from completing parole and probation to making sure the offender didn't use a deadly weapon during the commission of the crime.
But in the end the decision lies with the judge.
The state doesn't have control over who is stricken from the registry, said GBI spokesman John Bankhead. If the review board decides a person is a low risk, the Superior Court judge in the circuit the person was convicted in hears the case and makes a decision.
So far, judges across Georgia have released 136 offenders from the list, while 160 were removed automatically because they no longer were required to register based on the new law.
"not a simple process"
The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal class-action suit against the state five years ago seeking improvements to its sex offender laws.
Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the advocacy group, said last year's changes improved their fairness, particularly where misdemeanor offenders are concerned.
While the advocacy group represents only clients seeking to get off the registry in extreme cases, Geraghty said it gets calls daily from people interested in getting their names removed from the list.
Page Pate, an Atlanta-based defense attorney, said his experience is similar.
So far he has represented only half a dozen clients on the registry because the offender first must meet the state's lengthy requirements to file a petition. But Pate said he won the two cases that have been heard by a judge.
"As you might expect, the less egregious [the crime] the more likely they will get approved," he said.
Because the law is so new, judges don't have a precedent to consider, he said. Plus, it's not a good political move if a judge lets an offender off the list and the offender commits another sexual crime.
Officials say financial problems and the fear of going before a court again could be other factors that have kept more offenders from trying to have their names removed.
Since the law changed, officials of Catoosa and Walker Superior Courts say they haven't received any petitions from sex offenders, while Whitfield County has received only a handful of requests.
"It's not a simple process," Alvord said. "To a lot of people, it's intimidating."
Even with all of the precautions in place, any decision to remove an offender from state oversight carries an element of risk, officials said.
Prosecutors are limited in what they can argue in court when someone petitions to have his name removed, McManus said. They must determine if the person meets all the requirements, but they can't predict with any certainty whether that person will commit another crime.
"You don't know what they're going to do," he said. "We have to trust [the court's] judgment and hope they're right."
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...