Bill seeks to deny parole

Pedophiles law gets preliminary backing

General Assembly

March 25, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

The General Assembly appears poised to enact a tougher version of "Jessica's Law" - a measure aimed at preventing child sex offenders from committing further crimes by keeping them behind bars longer.

Yesterday, the House of Delegates joined the Senate in giving preliminary approval to the measure, which would deny parole eligibility for any perpetrator convicted of first- or second-degree sexual abuse against a child. It would augment a bill the legislature passed during a special session last summer that created 25-year mandatory minimum sentences for first-degree offenders and five-year minimum sentences for second-degree offenders.

"It's a step in the right direction to eliminate parole for these extremely violent sex offenders who have no business being paroled ever," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, the minority whip from Western Maryland.

In the past two years, states have passed versions of "Jessica's Law," named after Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, sexually abused and killed by a previously convicted child sex offender. Sex offender laws were a major topic of last year's Assembly session, when the legislature passed laws to increase monitoring, expand community notification and prohibit sex offenders from entering the grounds of a school or day care center.

Although the Maryland legislature passed mandatory minimum sentences last year, the Assembly's failure to ban parole for child sex offenders sparked anger among activists, who flooded lawmakers with phone calls in the past week demanding that the measures be brought out of committees for floor votes.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the bill will have little effect because the offenders it covers are rarely paroled.

"If you get 25 years or more, you're serving 24.7 years [on average] now," Vallario said.

However, he said, there is no harm in eliminating parole and some good in it if it provides peace of mind to victims and to members of the community.

"It makes people in the community realize people are not getting out," he said. "This way, they have assurance, and we think that's good."

Shank said about 30 people have been paroled in the past three years for the offenses covered by the bill, which include rape and other sex crimes. But considering the high recidivism rate for child sex offenders, the state can't be too careful, he said.

"One being paroled early is a very serious problem in my opinion," he said. "One is too many."

Identical versions of the bill are due for final votes in the House and the Senate tomorrow.

The bill received the unanimous endorsement of the Judiciary Committee and appears headed for easy passage in both chambers.

Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, a group that criticizes the nation's incarceration rate, said the Maryland legislature is making a mistake in taking away the discretion to handle offenders on a case-by-case basis. Warehousing people in prison instead of trying to find them treatment is an expensive and short-sighted choice for the state, he said.

Ziedenberg said it's unfortunate that on the same day the House rushed Jessica's Law onto the floor, delegates chose not to reconsider a vote from the day before when a bill to encourage treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders narrowly failed.

"They decided not to deal with people who represent the least risk to public safety," he said. "This state is going to have a prison capacity problem. They need to find a way to get people who are most amenable to treatment into the public health system."

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