Maryland lawmakers are negotiating down to the wire on an overhaul of sex offender laws that they hope will be the hallmark of this year's General Assembly session, which ends Monday.
They arrived in Annapolis in January promising to improve a system universally acknowledged to be flawed. Weeks earlier, an 11-year-old girl was murdered on the Eastern Shore, and a registered sex offender was later charged in the capital case.
Delegates and senators have signed off on a few of some 80 proposed fixes, including lifetime supervision of violent sex offenders who have been released from prison and elimination of good-behavior credits for those still behind bars.
But they remain deadlocked on what victims' groups call some of the most significant proposed changes: longer mandatory prison sentences for child molesters that Republicans have long sought; and federally required reforms to the state's publicly available sex offender registry that Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley is seeking.
Some advocates are furious about the delays. They say lawmakers are "playing games" to appease one or two reluctant members instead of acting on key legislation that received near-unanimous approval in the Senate and House of Delegates - although in slightly different forms.
Negotiations have yielded little progress. On Saturday, key lawmakers said they still weren't planning to budge.
"It's very, very disheartening," said Joan Harris, a Catonsville resident and president of Citizens for Jessica's Law, which has worked for years to increase prison sentences for child predators.
"We just felt like this was the year," she said, because of the coming election and the "horrible, tragic" case of Sarah Foxwell, whose body was found on Christmas Day on the Eastern Shore after a search involving 2,000 volunteers. The man charged, Thomas J. Leggs Jr., had been convicted of sex offenses in Delaware and Maryland.
Lisae Jordan of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault said she is "very concerned" that the sex offender registry overhaul might not pass, calling it one of several "important victim bills still up in the air."
Proposed changes to the registry include, for the first time, adding the names of those who commit sexually motivated acts of indecent exposure or possess child pornography. People who list themselves as "homeless" on the registry also would have to provide more information.
Many of the registry revisions were designed in part to bring Maryland into compliance with the Adam Walsh Act, and avoid cuts in federal public safety funding.
O'Malley identified strengthening sex offender laws as a priority this year, referring to the Sarah Foxwell case in several speeches. He put forward three measures, including lifetime supervision, reformation of a state sex offender advisory board, both of which have been approved, and registry changes.
"We expect people will be working diligently to reach final passage," said Joseph C. Bryce, O'Malley's legislative director, about the registry bill. "It's definitely on everyone's list of things to make sure don't fall through the cracks."
O'Malley supports longer prison sentences, saying "the highest priority of government is the public's safety, particularly the safety of our children," but has not personally pushed the legislation, as he has other sex offender reforms. The bills this year seek to expand Jessica's Law, signed into law in 2007, which increased mandatory minimums for first-degree rapists and first-degree sex offenders.
Earlier in the 90-day session, the House approved tripling the mandatory prison sentence for those convicted of second-degree rape or second-degree sex offense of a child, to 15 years. Offenders often serve less than half of the current five-year minimum.
The Senate backs a longer minimum of 20 years. Both chambers agree those offenders should not be eligible for parole.
Harris said the mandatory 20-year provision for child molesters "has the most teeth" of any piece of sex offender legislation under consideration this year.
Neither the House nor the Senate had selected members of a negotiating team by Saturday evening. Still, it is not unusual for resolutions to be reached in the final moments of a legislative session.
Desperate for either measure to become law, Harris on Saturday urged the Senate to adopt the House plan. But senators advanced their own, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican.
Acknowledging later that the House will not accept her plan, Jacobs vowed to ask her colleagues on Monday to accept the lower minimum sentence. She said she feels "pretty good that it'll pass," but noted "stranger things have happened" on the final day of the session.
Saturday's session saw the Senate add one more complication to the sex offender registry legislation, further complicating its passage at a time when the House already has objected to what the Senate wants to do.