Jones case puts focus on sex offender laws

August 03, 2006|By STEPHANIE DESMON AND SARA NEUFELD | STEPHANIE DESMON AND SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTERS

A state law passed in June makes it a crime for registered sex offenders to set foot on school grounds, as Melvin L. Jones Jr. did last year when he visited the 11-year-old he is charged with killing.

Had the law been in place a year ago, the principal of Collington Square School - who banned Jones from the campus and called the boy's mother when he learned of the man's history as a sex offender - would have been compelled to notify the police.

If authorities had known of Jones' contact with Irvin J. Harris, which included helping him with his classwork and accompanying him to the cafeteria, Jones could have been sent back to prison for violation of his probation.

The principal, Harold Eason, said in a statement yesterday that Jones had been "identified by the Harris family as the family representative and a caregiver for the Harris children."

Six weeks after Maryland legislators passed a sexual predator law giving convicted sex offenders longer prison sentences, increasing supervision once they are released and expanding the avenues by which communities learn that predators have moved into their neighborhoods, several lawmakers said yesterday the tools were already in place to deal with repeat offenders.

But a series of missteps and mistakes in judgment by family members, school officials and other caretakers appears to have allowed Jones to befriend Irvin, baby-sit the boy without his mother's supervision and even accompany him to school - despite being registered as a child sex offender and being ordered to stay away from children.

"We gave them a bunch more tools, but I'm not sure it would have made a difference in this case," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It doesn't sound like tougher laws would have made a difference."

Before his arrest in Irvin's stabbing death, Jones had a brush with the court system in 2002, when he agreed to a plea deal on two counts of a third-degree sex offense. The sentence was two concurrent terms of 10 years in prison, with all but one year suspended and five years of supervised probation with special conditions.

The new law provides mandatory minimum sentences for first- and second-degree sex offenses, but not for third-degree offenses - so it would have changed nothing on that front. The law also provides for longer probationary periods - but Jones was still being supervised by the state and had checked in regularly. State probation officials didn't know he had been baby-sitting Irvin for years - and still had contact with Irvin after his mother learned about Jones' past.

State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said he hopes a system of management teams that will be put in place under the new legislation will help catch repeat offenders. With more than one set of eyes on an offender, it is more likely any violations - such as Jones' interaction with children - could be detected, he said.

But more than anything, Curran said, "there's really a need for stricter enforcement of the laws we have."

"The key to it is information to the family, information to the neighborhoods, strict enforcement of the conditions of probation," he said. "But a case like this slips through the cracks."

Curran - who called the Irvin Harris case "one tragedy after another" - has long advocated for tougher laws, including one allowing authorities to keep offenders confined to hospital facilities after their sentences have been completed. More than a dozen states have civil commitment laws.

"The dysfunction doesn't just go away," he said. "There are sex offenders who, once released from prison, do horrible things."

Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has pushed for stricter sex offender laws, said he, too, would like to see more done. "I don't think the laws are strong enough," he said.

The principal at Collington Square School, Eason, said in a statement that he "acted immediately to ban Mr. Jones" once he discovered the man's background.

But the statement attempts to play down how much contact Jones had with students. "He worked with the Harris children only," he wrote.

In the next sentence, meant to be redacted by a school system lawyer but inadvertently left red-lined in a copy e-mailed to The Sun, the principal indicated that Jones may have been exposed to many youngsters: "He assisted them with classwork and accompanied them to the cafeteria during lunch."

Irvin's mother, Shanda Raynette Harris, has said she knew 52-year-old Jones was a convicted sex offender but continued to allow him to be around her children and grandchildren. Baltimore prosecutors have launched a child welfare investigation, saying possible charges against relatives and acquaintances of Irvin could include child abuse and neglect.

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