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Coddling criminals protects politicians

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2007

An accused sex offender and his attorney work out a complicated plea, the judge signs off and bends the rules, and the district attorney vows to revisit the issue.

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Welcome to Georgia's increasingly complicated sex offender registry, a well-intended program that has become a popular parking spot for politicians wishing to score quick points with law-and-order voters.

The latest twist in this labyrinthian law popped up last week, when Superior Court Judge Neal Dickert accepted an Alford plea from 56-year-old Edward Ferrang, of Evans, to a single count of sexual battery on a child.

The Alford plea allows someone accused of a crime to bring closure to the charges without admitting guilt. It's similar to the guilty plea U.S. Sen. Larry Craig entered for his misconduct in a Minneapolis airport restroom: he says he didn't do anything inappropriate, but just wanted the charge to go away.

Without admitting guilt, and with another half-dozen charges being taken off the table, Ferrang already was getting off lightly. But then Dickert also agreed to give Ferrang leeway on compliance with the terms of Georgia's sex-offender registry.

This spring, lawmakers toughened the law to prohibit registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of specified facilities - schools, day care centers, churches. Because Ferrang's Hardy Point home is within 1,000 feet of Riverside Baptist Church on Hardy-McManus Road, the law orders him to move within 72 hours of registration.

Reasonable people would agree that such a requirement is absurd. But reason frequently is trampled by emotion, particularly when herded by lawmakers intent on looking Tough On Crime.

Ludicrous though it might be, then, it's the law. Yet Dickert granted Ferrang a waiver, generously allowing him up to 120 days to sell his home and move.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation shrugs at the idea of a judge granting a waiver; they say it happens all the time. But Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Danny Craig contends judges don't have the authority to pick and choose details of the law. That's up to lawmakers.

Craig, who not long ago convinced members of the Columbia County Board of Education to "designate" bus stops, leading to an injunction against part of the new sex offender law, certainly hasn't displayed any interest in making the law more lenient.

But he is correct in pointing out that judges - and he currently is in the running to become one - should apply the laws as they get them, and not finagle around the edges just because they can.

Only when laws are enforced, prosecuted and enforced as written can the public get a true look at what their elected officials have created. When judges arbitrarily soften the blow as Dickert did with Ferrang, it not only goes easy on the criminal - it protects the politicians.



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