There are 36 men and one woman listed on Columbia County's sex offender registry. Eight of them are in police custody.
So, at the moment, there are 28 registered sex offenders walking Columbia County's streets, living in Columbia County's neighborhoods. Eight live in Grovetown. Seven each live in Harlem and Martinez. Four live in Evans, and one has an Appling address.
Their crimes include possession of child pornography, aggravated child molestation, attempted rape and sexual battery. Each of them, under Georgia law, must keep police informed of their address. The local law enforcement agency, in turn, must maintain an updated list of sex offenders registered in each county.
But that's all the list does. It doesn't protect the public from predators any more than a "no trespassing" sign can shield a window from a rock. That needs to be kept in perspective in the recent child molestation arrest of a Harlem High School student.
Christopher Allen Hall's arrest is shocking not just because his crime occurred in a school, but because he was in school at all. Hall's name and face have been on the sex-offender list since March 2002, when Judge Carlisle Overstreet accepted Hall's guilty plea to one count each of child molestation and attempted rape, and sentenced him to two concurrent six-year terms -- of probation.
Then 18, Hall had been indicted on two counts of child molestation, one count of rape and one count of attempted rape involving two victims. Even after the district attorney's office agreed to a plea bargain setting aside two of the charges, Hall could have gone to prison for 10-30 years.
Instead, Overstreet gave Hall just six years' probation. The sentence also required Hall to complete high school, pursue outpatient counseling, to live with his grandmother and to stay away from unsupervised contact with the victims, to whom he is related.
That's it. Nothing in there about staying away from public schools or school children.
A brief compiled in District Attorney Danny Craig's office points out that while it may be illegal to place additional restrictions on a registered sex offender's movements after sentencing just because he or she is on the list, it is permissible to keep an offender off school property -- especially while he or she is on probation.
Columbia County, then, had every right to lock Hall out, despite questionable conflicts with federal laws designed to protect special education students. Besides: Though the original sentence was sickeningly weak, nothing in it required Hall to set foot on campus; it simply required him to "complete high school." A GED would have sufficed.
That now seems to be the only educational route still open to Hall, who rewarded Overstreet's wimpy sentence by having sex with an underage girl while at the school he shouldn't have been attending in the first place. Now in jail for violating probation, Hall faces incarceration for the remainder of his probated sentence -- four more years, to be exact.
By then he'll be 24, far too old to attend high school -- but not too old to live in our community or anyone else's. His face will still be plastered on a Web site and an offender-registry poster in the Sheriff's Office. But it should by now be obvious that the registry, without community vigilance, is nothing more than a list of losers.
Harlem High officials failed to protect their students by not communicating all the way up the leadership ladder that Hall was on the list and in their school. And parents -- many of whom knew of Hall's previous offenses by word of mouth -- certainly failed to raise any objections until Hall's latest deed came to light.
Above all, none of these lapses would have mattered if Judge Overstreet had put Hall behind bars to start with -- and kept him there until school was out for good.
Columbia County's sex-offender registry: www.columbiacountyso.org/offenders.html
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