Targeting sex offenders

Our view: Legislation nearing final approval in the General Assembly should help the state keep its focus on those who pose the most danger to Maryland's children

April 01, 2010

The kidnapping and killing in December of 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl Sarah Foxwell was horrible enough by itself to spur Maryland's lawmakers to action -- the man accused of the crime had been convicted of a series of sex crimes against girls and young women but had always eluded serious jail time. Throw in the fact that the crime occurred just before the General Assembly returned to Annapolis in an election year, and it's no surprise that more than 75 bills to crack down on sex offenders were introduced this year. The risk appeared to be not that the legislature would fail to act but that it might go too far.

State leaders have been working to tighten sex offender laws for several years, but only recently have they started hearing from family and friends of those who have been caught up in sex-offender registries. They argued in testimony before the legislature this year that the registries have caught up thousands of low-level offenders who have gone on to law-abiding lives but live in fear that neighbors or employers will find out about their past. Sex-offender laws should be more narrowly crafted, they argued, to target the most serious, violent, repeat offenders, not those who committed relatively minor offenses many years ago. To a remarkable degree, the package of legislation moving toward final approval in the legislature accomplishes that.

Combining bills offered by Gov. Martin O'Malley with others sponsored by lawmakers from both parties, the legislation would expand registration to include some nonviolent offenses, but it changes the state's registry to make it easier for residents to get a true picture of the risk posed by those who are listed. It would adopt a new federal standard to list offenders in three tiers depending on the severity of their offenses and would include a plain-language description of the crimes. The package of legislation, versions of which have passed in the House and Senate, also calls for the creation of a juvenile sex offender registry, which would be available only to law enforcement officials.

The proposed system is a first step toward national standardization of how sex offenders are tracked. In the case of Sarah Foxwell, the most serious prior offenses committed by Thomas J. Leggs Jr., the man charged in her murder, were in Delaware. Mr. Leggs was counted as "high risk" on Delaware's registry because of his guilty plea in the rape of a minor in 2001, but not in Maryland. If this new law is enacted and other states follow the federal guidelines, offenders won't be able to shop around for the least restrictive states, and if an offender moves, his new state will know immediately how to classify him.

Another bill would expand the circumstances in which evidence of past sex crimes could be brought up as evidence at trial. In Mr. Leggs' case, they were not, which might be why he was able to plead to lesser offenses and avoid serious jail time.

Versions of an O'Malley administration bill requiring lifetime supervision of serious repeat sexual offenders have passed in both chambers. Measures such as GPS monitoring and polygraph tests have proven effective in all but eliminating recidivism. In addition, legislation approved by the House would eliminate good-behavior credits for serious sex offenders; require a judge, instead of a district court commissioner, to decide whether a sex offender should be eligible for pre-trial release; and increase the mandatory minimum penalty for second-degree rape or second-degree sexual offense against a child younger than 13 from 5 years to 15 years. A Senate version of the legislation would increase the minimum to 20 years.

The cautionary note about all this legislation is that it is only as good as the administration's execution of it. Tougher sex-offender laws passed during a special legislative session in 2006 were essentially forgotten. A sex-offense advisory panel never met, and legislation requiring extended supervision of some offenders was never used. The O'Malley administration says both bills were flawed, and new legislation moving through the General Assembly fixes and expands those laws. But if those laws were unworkable or potentially unconstitutional, it should not have taken four years for the administration to do something about it. Our leaders need to be held accountable to make sure they don't just pass laws to look tough on sex offenders but that they actually do something about it.

Readers respond

Unfortunately, the federal model of risk-assessment does not accurately predict recidivism and the attendant potential for risk to the public safety.

There are actuarial tools in use by many states which more accurately predict potential risks. The federal standard, to the contrary does not achieve this.

Sam Caldwell

Another O'Malley administration bill calls for lifetime supervision of serious repeat sexual offenders.

Serious repeat sexual offenders should be sentenced to life in jail.

They should never see the light of day.

Jay

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