Life in the shadows 

Now facing a legal challenge, Georgia's war on sex offenders could punish minor violators while failing to focus on the worst ones

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Wendy Whitaker didn't testify last week. Instead, she watched much of the hearing from the back of the courtroom, hoping the outcome will eventually force the state to draw meaningful distinctions between sex offenders who pose a threat to the community and people like herself.

"I consider my offense to be minor," she says. "I've been locked up with people who've done much worse than I did -- murderers, armed robbers, drug dealers -- who haven't had to go through what I have."

Earlier this year, she enrolled in Augusta Technical College to study criminal justice but is sitting out this quarter while she meets with Southern Center lawyers and attends court hearings. After she earns her two-year degree, she'd like to go on to law school, a plan she says is motivated by her tangles with the law.

"In another year, I can petition to be taken off the [sex-offender] registry, but I don't want what's happened to me to happen to others," she says.

Whitaker is referring to a provision in the law that allows certain first-time sex offenders to have their names taken off the registry after 10 years. If she and her husband, who works for Columbia County animal control, can manage mortgage payments for another year, she explains, then she'll be free to move back into her home.

Under the new law, however, the 10-year clock starts ticking not on an offender's conviction date, but on the completion of probation or parole, which means Whitaker could be barred from her house for several more years.

And last week, she learned of one more place that would be off limits if the new law were allowed to take effect: Because some of the students at Augusta Tech are under 18, Whitaker wouldn't be allowed to return to school.

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