Georgia was lauded four years ago by conservatives for passing one of the nation’s toughest sex offender laws. But the state has had to significantly — and without fanfare — scale back its once-intense restrictions.

Georgia’s old law was challenged by civil liberties groups even before it took effect. After losing court battle after court battle, state legislators were forced to make a change or a federal judge was going to throw out the entire law.

Now that the restrictions have been eased, about 13,000 registered sex offenders — more than 70 percent of all Georgia sex offenders — can live and work wherever they want.

Previously, all registered sex offenders were banned from living within 1,000 feet of schools, parks and other places where children gather, essentially driving them either to desolate areas or out of state. At one point, a tent city of homeless sex offenders was discovered in the woods behind a suburban office park.

“Lessening those kinds of restrictions is dangerous — it could lead to more crime, more offenders,” said Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “We know that sex offenders who prey upon children do well in prison because there aren’t temptations there. These guys get into the community, they begin to fantasize as they encounter kids in the community, and they lead to new offenses.”

Across the country, states are trying to figure out how far they can legally go to keep convicted sex offenders away from children. High-profile cases of registered sex offenders being accused of re-committing crimes only increases the legislative pressure.

Georgia’s strict law ran into trouble because it cast too wide a net, targeting sex offenders who committed their crimes years before the tough law was passed in 2006.

Kelly Piercy, who was convicted of child pornography in 1999, was ousted from his Columbus home because he lived too close to a church.

He spent three weeks searching before he and his wife found a beat-up trailer down a dusty dirt road in northeast Georgia.

In April, he bought a two-bedroom home in a small east Georgia community surrounded by farmland.

“We didn’t want to ever worry about being forced to move again,” said Piercy, who leads the advocacy group Georgians for Reform, which presses for an overhaul of the state’s sex offender laws. “Turns out I could have waited and bought anywhere.”


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