Governor promotes sex-crime measures

He urges harsher penalties, better tracking, cellular alerts

August 21, 2005|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pushed yesterday for stricter sex-offender laws in Maryland, saying he wants to increase penalties for sexually violent criminals and encourage residents to sign up for free cell-phone alerts of missing children.

"Government on every level needs to err on the side of children and families," Ehrlich said during an address to the Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City. "Public safety first."

His speech highlighted an issue that's fast becoming central in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is expected to seek the Democratic nomination, offered a six-point plan last week to address the problem of sexual predators. He suggested that convicted child molesters should wear satellite tracking bracelets for the rest of their lives, a policy endorsed by state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is O'Malley's father-in-law.

O'Malley also suggested that sex offenders who fail to register a correct address with the state should be charged with a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Ehrlich offered the same proposal yesterday.

Both leaders' plans come after a Sun report in July that as many as one in five of the addresses recorded in the Maryland Sex Offender Registry is inaccurate. The registry contains the names of 4,343 people convicted of sex crimes in the state. About 1,300 are being monitored by authorities.

Spate of proposals

Ehrlich's plan, presented to a packed ballroom at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center, would make Maryland the first state in the country where the governor has directed that all state cell phones be connected to the Amber Alert system, said Alan Friedman, a crime policy adviser to the governor. The public could sign up for the free service, which would issue alerts when children are missing, Ehrlich said, noting that sex offenders often use the Internet to prey on children and that government officials should use technology to fight back.

"Technology works both ways," Ehrlich said.

Calling sexually violent predators "the worst of the worst," the governor said he would introduce legislation during the 2006 Assembly session that would increase the penalties for this class of offenders to a maximum of life imprisonment. If released, they would face lifetime electronic monitoring.

Ehrlich plans to offer another proposal next year mandating that released sex offenders appear twice a year in person to update their registration with law enforcement agencies. Noncompliance would bring increased penalties, he said.

An O'Malley spokesman said yesterday that the mayor's plan was more comprehensive because it would create lifetime supervision through electronic devices for about 3,000 child sex offenders and sexually violent predators. Ehrlich's proposal would provide lifetime monitoring only for sexually violent predators, said mayoral spokesman Stephen Kearney. He said there are just a handful of such offenders in the state.

"We agree with the governor that more needs to be done to protect Maryland's children," Kearney said. "We need to replace the honor system for child sex offenders with tough enforcement with ankle-bracelet tracking."

`Gamesmanship'

Yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat who is also likely to run for governor, criticized O'Malley and Ehrlich for politicizing the issue.

"The political gamesmanship that is being played does nothing to prevent attacks or help the victims of these horrendous crimes," Duncan said in a statement.

Ehrlich titled his proposals Sex Offenders Compliance and Enforcement in Maryland or SOCEM, pronounced "sock 'em." The state has created a Web site, www.socem.info, containing photographs and information about all offenders who have failed to keep updated information with the state.

Kearney said the mayor has proposed a more thorough Web site that would provide maps showing the locations of sex offenders in neighborhoods, instead of making users sort through lists of addresses.

The governor said there would be two annual statewide "SOCEM nights," in which local law enforcement agencies would be urged to knock on the doors of every registered sex offender to verify the address and personal information.

Already some offices, notably the Harford County Sheriff's Office, have such an effort in place.

The governor said he expected some of his proposals to draw criticism from civil liberties advocates. "Whatever we do we suspect will be challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union," he said in an appearance on WBAL radio before the speech.

Staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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