2 chambers act to shield kids

House, Senate OK bills to prohibit parole for convicted child sex offenders

General Assembly

March 27, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Bills that would prohibit parole for those convicted of sexual offenses against children passed both chambers of the General Assembly yesterday after a lobbying push from parents and activists.

The measures, which were approved unanimously in the House and 43-3 in the Senate, would strengthen Maryland's version of "Jessica's Law," which requires mandatory minimum sentences for such offenders. The legislation has become a cause celebre since 2005, when a Florida girl, Jessica Lunsford, was kidnapped, sexually abused and killed by a previously convicted child sex offender.

"We need to send a message to these terrible criminals," said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat. "Maryland is on the forefront of addressing this most serious issue."

The language in the bills passed by the House and Senate was identical, so final approval of a bill by the General Assembly likely will be a formality. A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said the governor supports the bill and will sign it.

The General Assembly passed a series of sex offender laws last summer, including mandatory minimum sentences of 25 years for the worst offenders, enhanced tracking of offenders and expanded community notification. Because the legislature left out a provision banning parole, activists and parents flooded the General Assembly with telephone calls and e-mail this year asking lawmakers to tighten the statute. Legislators said the emotional nature of the crimes and the lasting impact on victims made the bill essential.

"They live with this trauma," Del. Craig L. Rice, a Montgomery County Democrat, said. "It's something that never goes away."

Del. Steven J. DeBoy Sr., a Baltimore County Democrat and former police officer, said no crime is more reprehensible than a sex crime against a child. "I can tell you, if somebody did that to one of my kids, I'd probably be in jail," DeBoy said.

Under existing law, those convicted of sexual offenses against children are rarely paroled in Maryland. Parole Commission Chairman David Blumberg said 28 sex offenders - including those who committed offenses against adults - were paroled in the past three years. That's 2.5 percent of sex offenders who were eligible during that period, he said. Of those, 11 had committed offenses that were covered by Jessica's Law, Blumberg said. Five of those have been arrested for new crimes but none for sex offenses.

Blumberg said the commission sets a high standard for the parole of sex offenders, but he said the new bill is a good idea.

"While I think parole is a very good tool with just about all populations, sex offenders are one [area] where there's not been a lot of progress as far as any type of cure," Blumberg said.

Lisae C. Jordan, legislative counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the attention the legislature has paid to sex crimes is heartening, but she said the General Assembly could take other measures that would have a bigger impact on improving the safety of children.

"What this bill really does is codify current practice," Jordan said.

Another bill that passed the House yesterday, sponsored by Del. Sue Hecht, a Frederick County Democrat, would classify sexual abuse against a child as a crime of violence, a change that would increase penalties for repeat offenders. The Senate passed a similar bill last week.

A proposal to limit the parental rights of rapists for children conceived as a result of the rape, sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, has passed the Senate but has not moved in the House.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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