New wave of Md. laws

Measures include `living wage,' parole changes

September 29, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

Employees of state contractors will be guaranteed a higher wage. Parole will be prohibited for those convicted of sex crimes against children. And teenagers chronically absent from school won't be able to get learner's permits to drive.

Those are among a slew of Maryland bills passed by state legislators and signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley this year, ready to go into effect Monday. The wide-ranging laws touch on everything from criminal justice and public safety to ensuring that dogs tied outside have reasonable freedom of movement.

One of the most significant pieces of legislation passed is the nation's first "living-wage" law, which will set a higher minimum wage for those employed by state contractors.

The law sets minimum wages for employees of government contractors at $11.30 an hour in the Baltimore-Washington area and $8.50 an hour in rural areas.

"Monday is a historic day for working families in Maryland," said Thomas E. Perez, Maryland's secretary of labor, licensing and regulation. "Maryland is the first state in the union to enact a statewide living-wage law and, as the richest state in the union, I think we are in a good position to set the tone for other states."

The law was praised by Progressive Maryland, a liberal coalition of business and religious groups that has lobbied for such a measure for years.

"The bill is a huge improvement over what came before it," said Sean Dobson, executive director of Progressive Maryland. "Workers who are employed by state service contracts can now get paid enough to live without having to use food stamps.

"U.S. Census reports that poverty keeps growing in Maryland," he added. "The living-wage bill fights poverty and rewards work."

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, among the groups that opposed the legislation, still has concerns.

Ronald W. Wineholt, vice president of government affairs at the chamber, said the group is working on details affecting implementation of the law.

"We still have some concerns regarding aspects of how the law may be implemented - specifically, businesses have concerns regarding the requirement that every employer provide a copy of their payroll to the department every pay period," he said. "We think that requirement is not necessary to effectively enforce the law."

Perez said the public comment period for regulations will continue through Oct. 14, and final regulations will go into effect by the end of the year.

"Our initial efforts are focusing on outreach and education because we want to make sure that businesses understand the requirements and are able to comply," he said.

Another measure taking effect will strengthen Maryland's version of "Jessica's Law," which requires mandatory minimum sentences for the sexual assault of children. The law is named after a Florida girl, Jessica Lunsford, who was kidnapped, sexually abused and killed by a previously convicted child sex offender.

The new Maryland law will prohibit parole for those who receive mandatory minimum sentences for a sex offense against a child, defined as a crime of violence.

"I think it's an important step for public safety," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican who sponsored the bill in the House of Delegates. "With the recidivism rate for child sex offenders, it is unacceptable to me that people who are sentenced for these crimes be released from prison. The only safe place for them is to be locked up behind bars."

Among the other measures taking effect Monday is a package of juvenile justice reform laws that will reorganize the Department of Juvenile Services to offer more targeted programs for troubled youths. The package includes a measure to expand the monitoring of juvenile residential facilities and require timely reports on their conditions.

Legislators approved the measures after the death of a Baltimore youth at Bowling Brook Preparatory School, a privately run school for juvenile offenders in Carroll County. The school was shut down in March.

Also going into effect are two in a series of laws reforming Baltimore City's ground rent practice.

One measure provides a means for homeowners to buy out irredeemable ground rents, while another creates a ground rent registry.

Other criminal justice laws going into effect Monday will stiffen sentences for gang-related crime and automatically expunge police records for people arrested but released without being charged.

More than 21,000 people were arrested but not charged last year in Maryland, most of them in Baltimore; the arrest records proved troublesome for those trying to get jobs, mortgages, financial aid and professional licenses.

Before the change, those arrested but not charged had to petition for expungement, but they also had to sign a waiver promising not to sue the police for false arrest or other claims arising from the incident, or wait three years, when the statute of limitations for such actions expires.

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