Child molest measure stalls

Bill hits hurdle on proposed sentences for sex offenders

General Assembly


Legislation punishing sex offenders appeared to be the one issue that garnered bipartisan support in a General Assembly consumed with partisan wrangling.

But what seemed like a slam-dunk three months ago faces a major hurdle as Democrats and Republicans struggle over a provision requiring mandatory minimum sentences for child molesters.

Lawmakers have a huge task before them, with two versions of a sex offender bill likely to be hammered out in a conference committee Monday, the last day of the legislative session. Some lawmakers fear that the measure will become lost in a tumultuous day of last-minute approvals and expected attempts by the Democratic legislature to override multiple vetoes by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"It could get caught behind any number of controversial issues," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, which worked to combine numerous sex offender bills into one. "I would be extremely frustrated because not only would it be a profound waste of time, but [the bill] was this one glimmer of hope that we could all work together."

Yesterday, the House of Delegates amended a Senate proposal by including a measure requiring mandatory sentencing of at least 25 years for the worst child molesters. The Senate has not moved on a House-approved measure that includes the same minimum sentencing requirement. Senate lawmakers have indicated they do not like the proposal, known as Jessica's law.

The provision is modeled after a Florida law named for a 9-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered by a convicted sex offender. It requires minimum sentencing for people convicted of first- and second-degree rape or attempts to commit those crimes against a victim under age 13.

House Republicans and Democrats sparred over the measure recently, when Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat, moved to amend the original sex offender law to include the Jessica's law provision. Brown is also Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's running mate in a race to unseat Ehrlich.

But Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland, said doing so would mean certain death for the provision or perhaps the entire bill.

"It was a way to kill Jessica's law without fingerprints," said O'Donnell. "I really feel it is in big trouble because these folks want to make it appear that they really support it but they don't."

Brown denies O'Donnell's assertion, saying he wanted to include the bill in the umbrella sex offender legislation. He said he hopes to be appointed to the conference committee to negotiate a solution.

"We wouldn't even be talking about Jessica's law if it were its own bill. The Senate would have not have supported that," he said.

O'Donnell filed a separate measure modeled after Jessica's law, but lawmakers said it arrived late in the session and the Judiciary Committee did not move on it.

Some Republicans have hinted they would not support the bill without the Jessica's law provision, angering Democrats, especially in the Senate, where there is strong opposition to the mandatory minimums.

"This committee has many times stood behind the idea of judicial discretion, meaning having a judge determine the egregiousness of the crime," said Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Democrat from Anne Arundel and Prince George's County.

"I think both houses want a bill on sexual predators, but because of the disagreement on Jessica's law, we might get nothing on this," he said. "What I'm trying to do is to make sure we pass some bill. And [the Senate version] is what I consider baseline."

In response to a string of heinous crimes toward children, get-tough policies on sexual predators have swept through state legislatures nationwide. The proposals range from the costly - monitoring offenders by satellite with global positioning devices - to the controversial, such as confining the state's most dangerous sexual predators to a dedicated facility.

Aside from the Jessica's law provision, the House and Senate versions are similar.

If a law emerges, the measures will likely include increased monitoring of child molesters once they are released from prison and stiffer penalties for those who do not comply with registration requirements. Both proposals empower a parole commission to determine how long sex offenders should be monitored and if they should use satellite tracking.

Both bills provide for increased community notification, require sex offenders to register in person every three months, and boost the penalty for failing to do so from a misdemeanor to a felony, with penalties of up to five years and in prison and a fine of $10,000.

In Maryland, efforts to crack down on child molesters appeared fated to become a political issue this election season, with proposals offered by some of the state's leading politicians, including Ehrlich, O'Malley, and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is O'Malley's father-in-law.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch reiterated yesterday that sex offender legislation is a priority. "A bill is going to pass," he said.

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