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July 28, 2010

County seeks felony status for sex offenders in parks

CULLMAN — Registered sex offenders are finding recreation options in Cullman County harder and harder to come by.

The Cullman County Commission unanimously agreed Tuesday to join with other county municipalities in making it a crime for sex offenders to enter public parks. Unlike Hanceville and Dodge City, which recently passed ordinances making the transgression a misdemeanor offense, the county intends to make it a felony for perpetrators to enter any of the five public parks in the Cullman County park system.

In order to do that, the commission will have to get some help from the state legislature. By statute, the county commission cannot pass laws designating criminal offenses and must have a member of the local legislative delegation introduce a bill to incorporate the new law into the Code of Alabama. That, said commission chairman James Graves, will not happen before the start of the 2011 legislative session early next year.

“We passed a resolution today requesting our legislators to introduce a bill next year that will make this a felony,” said Graves. “So far, we have heard from (House district 11 Rep.) Jeremy Oden, and he is very receptive of it. We believe the others will support it as well.”

While a bill has not been drafted yet, the commission recommended the inclusion of language that would make “each entry into such [county park] areas, regardless of the time period between such entries...constitute a separate offense under this ordinance...anyone who is found in violation of this ordinance shall be guilty of a Class C felony.”

Associate commissioner Doug Williams said the measure is intended to keep registered sex offenders out of the way of locations—such as parks where children often play with limited supervision— that could invite repeat offenses.

"It's a statewide trend to protect our children, and we're using our ability as a legislative body to do this," Williams said. "We don't want sex offenders around our children."

Graves agreed, saying the law should help supplement existing laws by equipping local enforcement with a local ordinance that carries more weight.

“If there’s something lacking in the laws we have, then I’m all for giving law enforcement some more teeth in a law that allows them to do something where we’re having problems,” he said. “At Sportsman Lake in particular, we now have more and more children coming around with all the improvements that have been made there, and we want to make sure this kind of problem doesn’t arise in the future.”

Cullman County operates five public parks: Smith Lake Park, Sportsman Lake Park, Clarkson Covered Bridge, Stoney Lonesome OHV Park and Lions’ Club Landing at Cold Springs. Graves said Tuesday the commission had not yet discussed how enforcement at Sportsman Lake Park, which is wholly within the city limits of Cullman, would be handled if the bill becomes law.

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