Dels. James Mathias Jr., left, and Norman H. Conway listen to… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
Almost every aspect of Maryland's sex offender laws is receiving scrutiny this year as state lawmakers respond to the December killing of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell on the Eastern Shore at the hands, authorities believe, of a registered child sex offender.
On Tuesday, a panel of delegates reviewed 30 proposals, including a contentious plan backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley that would add juveniles to the state sex offender registry.
Opponents said such a change would unfairly stigmatize young people who are often abuse victims themselves. The same measure would require more information of homeless registrants, something lawmakers have previously rejected.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch made a rare visit to the House Judiciary Committee, a signal that the push to toughen sex offender laws has support from the highest levels of the General Assembly.
"Despite all of our efforts, we have flaws in the system," said Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, telling lawmakers that as the father of an 11-year-old girl, he was particularly moved by the death of Sarah Foxwell. Laws that protect children, he said, are "the ultimate issue of why we're here in office."
Public defenders and others cautioned against writing laws as an emotional response to the Eastern Shore killing, but lawmakers said Maryland residents are demanding action. "What we have witnessed today is the voice of the residents of this state saying, 'Do something,' " said Del. Benjamin F. Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Some lawmakers have seized on sex offender laws as a potential election year rallying point, saying the state, under the Democratic governor, has failed to crack down on predators. Many Republicans wore white ribbons Tuesday in honor of child victims. They held a news conference, also attended by Democratic Sen. Norman Stone of Baltimore County, to highlight their proposals.
Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, stormed out of the Judiciary Committee hearing at one point, saying Maryland leaders have failed to enforce laws already on the books.
Later, Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House Republican leader, said he was "really glad to see the administration finally bring" tougher sex offender measures to lawmakers.
Legislators are reviewing everything from the length of prison sentences for sex offenders to what information Maryland should share with other states. During a hearing that spanned nearly seven hours, the House committee reviewed just a fraction of the 75-plus sex offense bills that have been filed this year.
O'Malley has identified strengthening sex offender laws as a priority, but did not provide testimony on the legislation he is backing. The governor was in Virginia for a meeting of a panel of governors that advises the president.
The proposals heard Tuesday would, among other things:
•Require lifetime supervision of violent and repeat sex offenders.
•Eliminate or restrict "good time" credits that enable sex offenders to leave prison before completing their sentence.
•Provide more notice to residents when a sex offender has moved to the neighborhood, and require offenders to list more than one address if they have homes in several places.
•Revise and expand the state sex offender registry to include juveniles and offenders who committed crimes decades ago. Such changes are designed to bring the state into compliance with the 2006 federal Adam Walsh Act, which could help Maryland avoid federal public safety funding cuts.
'No reason to rush'
Opponents of the proposals - including public defenders, homeless-rights and juvenile offender advocates and families of people convicted of sex crimes - implored legislators to carefully weigh the proposals instead of voting reactively in favor of them.
"There is no reason to rush into any of this," said Laurel Albin, director of legislative affairs for the state Office of the Public Defender. "It is serious business."
That's a concern also raised by some lawmakers on the committee. Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he didn't want to pass sex offender laws "on the fly."
"In my view, it's not as preferable as having forged through a more thoughtful and deliberative process."
Last month, Simmons complained that get-tough laws passed four years ago had not been used by the O'Malley administration and judges. He questioned why a sex offender advisory board that had been created in 2006 to study the state's laws and make recommendations to legislators hadn't met a single time.
O'Malley has since reactivated that board, appointing former Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. as its chairman. The governor wants lawmakers to revamp the board to include more experts on sexual predators.