Maryland legislators moved Friday to toughen the state's sex offender laws with a package of changes that includes a truth-in-sentencing provision for the most violent and repeat offenders, longer supervision after prison and an expansion of the state's public registry.
The House Judiciary Committee, which handles crime legislation, unanimously approved seven bills, wrapping into them a dozen more. The flood of ideas - lawmakers introduced more than 75 bills addressing sex offenses - came after the killing in December of an 11-year-old girl on the Eastern Shore. Thomas J. Leggs Jr., a 30-year-old registered sex offender who committed his first crimes as a teenager, is charged with capital murder in Sarah Foxwell's death.
Several committee members said some changes amount to nothing more than a public relations strategy in response to a tragedy. But other lawmakers said the changes could make a real difference.
House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Democrat, said his committee's plan is comprehensive. "This will have a serious impact on sex offenders in the state."
A proposal to more closely watch over violent sex offenders who committed crimes when they were juveniles "best addresses the awful situation in Salisbury," said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat. Leggs "would have been on lifetime supervision. God forbid something like this happens again."
Lifetime supervision would be required for the most violent and repeat sex offenders, adults and juveniles who commit first- or second-degree rape or first- or second-degree sex offenses.
It's backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who has alluded to Foxwell in speeches about the state's responsibility to children. Spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor is pleased with the passage of "important legislation to protect children in our state from child sex offenders."
But Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican who criticized several of the bills Friday while voting for all of them, called "lifetime supervision" a misnomer. Any offender who is placed under it can seek an end after five years; a team of trained supervisors and a judge must agree to it. The intensity of supervision is not spelled out in the new law; it would be determined on a case-by-case basis.
The Judiciary Committee also wants to eliminate good-behavior credits for violent sex offenders and repeat child molesters, keeping them behind bars longer, and limit pretrial release for people accused of certain sex crimes. Some delegates said the committee should limit credits for more kinds of criminals than just sex offenders.
The most sweeping changes backed by the committee are an expansion of the publicly available sex offender registry and development of a private registry for juveniles who commit the most serious sex crimes, including rape. Only law enforcement officials would have access to the juvenile registry - a restriction meant to address privacy concerns raised by youth advocates.
Added to registry
For the first time, those who commit sexually motivated acts of indecent exposure or possess child pornography would be required to register. And people who list themselves as "homeless" on the registry would have to provide more information.
Many of the registry revisions are designed in part to bring Maryland into compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act, and help the state avoid cuts in federal public safety funding.
The Walsh Act sets up "tiers" that, if other states also conform, would standardize the way sex offenders are supervised in the community and described on each state's registry. Ohio is the only state in full compliance.
Kristen Mahoney, director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, said the Adam Walsh Act is designed to "help any state from becoming a safe haven." She said sex offenders "forum shop" for states with the least-descriptive registries and supervision requirements.
Maryland's registry would include all residences where an offender spends five or more hours a day, at least five times a month. The provision was drafted by Del. William J. Frank, a Baltimore County Republican who was responding to a situation that residents in his area had brought to his attention: A sex offender purchased a house in Towson but instead registered a room he rented in Annapolis.
The committee also approved a new Sex Offender Advisory Board, though some Republicans said they did so grudgingly. The O'Malley-backed bill adds people with expertise in offender treatment to a panel that has been in place since 2006.
That board never met - in part, O'Malley aides have said, because it was composed of the wrong people.