updated 6/23/2006 6:26:49 PM ET 2006-06-23T22:26:49

Lori Collins searched lonely stretches of country roads and scoured industrial lots for a place she could live as a registered sex offender. After weeks of looking, she finally found a house 35 miles east of Atlanta.

But her heart sank when she learned it was close to a school bus stop.

That meant the house was off-limits under the thorniest restriction in a new Georgia law. It is one of the strictest sex-offender laws in the nation.

“OK? Now where do you look?” said an exasperated Collins, who was convicted in 2002 of statutory rape for having sex with a 15-year-old when she was 39. “I’ve looked in the country and the city. Where else?”

While many states and municipalities bar sex offenders from living near schools, Georgia’s law, which takes effect July 1, prohibits them from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of just about anywhere children gather — schools, churches, parks, gyms, swimming pools or one of the state’s 150,000 school bus stops.

That puts virtually every residential neighborhood off limits to Georgia’s more than 10,000 registered sex offenders.

Lawmakers began working on the legislation last year following the arrests of two sex offenders in the slayings of two girls in neighboring Florida.

“We don’t want these types of people staying in our state,” state Rep. Jerry Keen said when he introduced the bill in January.

Too tough?
With the law about to take effect, a debate is under way over how tough is too tough.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of Collins and others this week in federal court by the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights argues that the law makes it impossible for offenders to live in most of the state’s urban and suburban areas. It predicted that many will have to live out of their cars or set up tents or trailers in the woods. The center also warned that the law will undermine efforts to keep track of offenders.

“The reality is that the restrictions are so tough that they are going to backfire by causing people not to report and re-register with their probation officers,” said Sara Totonchi, the center’s public policy director. “As a result, the number of people who will abscond from the registry will increase. And we won’t be able to supervise them.”

Forced to move
In Georgia’s Bibb County, which includes Macon and is about 85 miles south of Atlanta, most residential areas are within the buffer zones surrounding the county’s 4,700 school bus stops, according to the lawsuit. That means all but three of the county’s 230 registered offenders must move, the lawsuit says.

And because the locations of bus stops can change throughout the school year, offenders could be forced to move over and over again, some say.

Under the Georgia law, those deemed sexually dangerous predators also would have to wear electronic monitoring devices for the rest of their lives after their release from prison. The law also increases prison sentences for rape, child molestation and other charges from 10 years to a mandatory minimum of 25 years and makes it a crime to harbor a sex offender.

While at least 15 states also restrict how close sex offenders can live to schools or day-care centers, Georgia is the only state to explicitly bar them from living near school bus stops, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Louisiana bars sex offenders from going within 1,000 feet of school buses. Texas also restricts offenders from going near places where children commonly gather but does not specifically mention bus stops.

Miami Beach, Fla., essentially outlawed all sex offenders when it passed an ordinance last year banning child molesters from living within 2,500 feet of schools, school bus stops, day care centers, parks or playgrounds.

No proof yet, professor says
Research has yet to show that such buffer zones are effective at reducing sex crimes, said David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire sociology professor who is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center.

Sex offenders typically meet their victims through their jobs, volunteer groups or other social networks, not because they live in the same neighborhood, he said. He said such measures also create a false sense of security.

“You’ve zoned out some known offenders, but there are certainly others living in your midst you don’t know about,” he said.

Keen, the author of Georgia’s law, said crimes against children are “the worst of the worst.”

“We knew there were going to be some people affected by this law, that it was going to create some inconvenience,” said Keen, a Republican. “But we thought that was a small price to pay for what the overall law is intended to do.”

Collins, who became a ministry director after serving three years in prison, said she feels as if she is being put on trial all over again.

“I’m the first to tell you that we need to protect our children from violent pedophiles and predators,” she said. “But I also know we can change.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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