When Is a Sex Offender Not a Sex Offender?

Justice delayed is certainly better than justice denied, but it would be preferable if travesties of justice could simply be avoided in the first place. The case of Genarlow Wilson—about whom I have posted on this site before—and other teens like him should serve as a cautionary tale for those who create and enforce the law. Mr. Wilson’s case amply demonstrates what happens when (a) legislators write laws in a reactionary and hysterical manner that blinds them of common sense and foresight and then (b) prosecutors don their own blinders and apply those laws with the fervor of the recently converted. Fortunately for Mr.Wilson, after serving nearly three years in prison for committing the egregious offense of engaging in a consensual sexual act with another teenager, cooler and wiser heads prevailed. But others still await their justice, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution points out:

Genarlow Wilson is free … but others are not

Several months ago, Genarlow Wilson was not optimistic Georgia courts would ever rule in his behalf. Interviewed in June at the Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, he pondered his chances.

“I’m really praying for the best, but at the same time I’m expecting the worst,” he said.

On Friday, Wilson got the best. He won his freedom after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that “… Wilson’s sentence is grossly disproportionate to his crime and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under both the Georgia and the United States Constitutions.” Later that day, Wilson left the prison, flanked by his attorney, B.J. Bernstein, and his mother, Juannessa Bennett.

Wilson, who served nearly three years of a 10-year sentence, may be the most extreme example of a teenager entrapped by the state’s regressive sex laws. The conduct that led to his felony conviction took place at a sordid 2003 New Year’s Eve Party, when he was 17 and the girl just two years his junior.

But Wilson is not the only young offender caught in a maze of draconian sex laws. Many young people are trapped on the state sex offender registry for nonviolent and consensual sex acts as teens.

The registry is a prison sentence in its own right, fencing even low-risk offenders off from most of society. Georgia law bars offenders from living or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, parks, rec centers or skating rinks. Last year, the General Assembly added churches, swimming pools and school bus stops to the list, and, for the first time, placed limits on where offenders could work. Now, sex offenders can’t hold jobs near schools, child care centers or churches.

In his long journey toward freedom, Wilson turned down plea deals that would have sprung him from jail because he felt that he’d never be free if he were on the sex offender registry. “I just don’t feel I’m a sexual predator,” he said.

Those sweeping limits have stranded other young offenders with virtually no place to go. Also convicted at age 17 of having oral sex with a 15 -year-old, Jeffery York, 23, of Polk County has resorted to sleeping in a camper van in the woods to comply with the registry. When she was 17, Wendy Whitaker, 28, of Harlem had oral sex with a teen about to turn 16; her sodomy conviction landed her on the registry and forced her and her husband to move twice already.

Now that the Supreme Court has issued a common-sense ruling that sex between teens is not the equivalent of adults preying on children, it’s the Legislature’s turn to act on reason. Lawmakers must amend the sex offender registry law so that it distinguishes between two immature high school kids hooking up at a party to a pedophile molesting the toddler next door. [full text]