O'Malley to seek sex law reform

But some say tough legislation on the books has been largely ignored

January 24, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Gov. Martin O'Malley will announce this week that he wants lifetime supervision of violent and repeat sex offenders, part of a flood of promised reforms in the wake of the murder of an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl. A registered sex offender is charged with abducting Sarah Foxwell, whose body was found Christmas Day.

But as the Democratic governor introduces new proposals, some lawmakers want him to explain why get-tough laws already on the books have barely been used.

Emergency legislation from 2006 called for extra supervision of certain sex offenders, ranging from three years to a lifetime. Not a single person has been subjected to that extension, despite predictions it would affect at least 475 offenders every year.

That same measure created an advisory board to recommend overhauls of the entire sex offender system and issue its findings at the end of last year. The 13-member board was to include members of the governor's cabinet and citizens appointed by him.

The board has never met, and no report was produced.

Another law, enacted Oct. 1, 2007, requires judges to order mental health evaluations of all child sexual abusers at the time of sentencing as a way to help differentiate one-time offenders from dangerous predators.

Just two such evaluations have occurred, a tiny fraction of the people convicted of sexual abuse of a minor.

"It's worse than doing nothing," Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, said of the little-used laws. "We have created the illusion that we are moving forward, when in fact we have been moving backward. It's as if we lost our weapon. We have a legislative weapon, and we put it in a drawer somewhere and forgot about it."

Such inaction stokes citizen cynicism that is especially potent in the current political climate, said John Bambacus, a former Republican state senator and emeritus political science professor at Frostburg State University. And with a gubernatorial campaign on the horizon, people are even more sensitive to election-year promises that yield no results.

"It's indefensible. This erodes confidence in the legislative process," he said. "Sex offenders - you can't find a more serious topic. It's not the kind of issue where you can fall asleep at the switch."

Aides to the governor say that many aspects of the 2006 legislation, which had been a top agenda item for Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., were simply unworkable, if not outright illegal. They argue that O'Malley has made dramatic improvements to the supervision of sex offenders even without a board report.

If O'Malley were the type of official "who needed to wait for the recommendations of a board before taking action, then the fact that the board never met could be a problem," said Joseph C. Bryce, the governor's legislative affairs chief. "But he has never been that kind of person."

Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for the governor, said that under O'Malley's watch, sex offenders are now supervised by specially trained agents and are required to receive the strictest probationary terms. Many are monitored by global positioning ankle devices, with a zero-tolerance policy for violations.

O'Malley also dedicated resources to processing thousands of DNA samples which led to more matches on the database - and the arrest of numerous sex offenders - in the first eight months of his administration than in the previous eight years, Adamec said.

Aides outlined what they saw as problems with the 2006 legislation, saying the extended supervision provision, a responsibility given to the Maryland Parole Commission, seemed to trample the sentencing authority of judges. Public safety officials were advised that part of the law is unconstitutional, Bryce said.

And the sexual offender board, overseen by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, didn't have enough people with expertise in sex offender treatment, the aides said, something the agency unsuccessfully tried to fix twice with more legislation.

"When [the governor] saw something that wasn't working, he went to the legislature to get it fixed," Bryce said. "I know of no better way to say to a legislative body that a law is nonfunctional than to put a bill in to fix it. The governor should be applauded for trying to fix a well-intentioned law that didn't work and couldn't work."

As for why just two mental health evaluations have been conducted on child sex offenders, despite the 2007 law requiring judges to order them, "We've sort of wondered why, as well," said W. Lawrence Fitch, director of forensic service for the state Mental Hygiene Administration.

Fitch said half a dozen psychologists on contract with the agency are trained to perform the evaluations. The state sentencing commission told Simmons that nearly 300 people have been convicted of sexual abuse of a minor in the past three years.

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