Opportunities too important to miss

Our view: The General Assembly has spent months debating legislation to deal with sex offenders and drunken drivers

it can’t let those measures fall through at the last minute

April 12, 2010

When the legislature convened in January, it seemed all but certain that it would seek to address two terrible deaths caused in some part by failures of our systems to keep Marylanders safe. In October, Miriam Frankl, 20, a Johns Hopkins University undergraduate, was killed as she stepped off the curb in Charles Village by a truck careening up the street on what witnesses said was a reckless ride through the city. Thomas Meighan Jr., a Carroll County man who had been repeatedly convicted of drunken-driving offenses but was still the registered owner of the truck that struck Ms. Frankl, has been charged in her death. And in December, Sarah Foxwell, an 11-year-old Salisbury girl, was kidnapped from her home and killed. The man charged in her death, Thomas J. Leggs Jr., was a registered sex offender who had managed to avoid serious jail time despite a string of guilty pleas, including the rape of a Delaware girl.

But as the General Assembly convenes Monday for the final sprint of this year's session, important pieces of legislation designed to prevent a repeat of those two tragedies still face uncertain prospects.

Several bills dealing with sex offenders have passed and are headed to Gov. Martin O'Malley's desk, including legislation to reduce good-time credits sex offenders can receive in prison, and lifetime supervision for some serious offenders upon release. But legislation that would increase the penalties for some child sex offenders and revamp Maryland's sex offender registry to comply with federal standards are hung up by differences between the House and Senate.

And legislation requiring those convicted of drunken driving – even first-time offenders – to install ignition interlock systems in their cars passed the Senate 44-0 this year but has yet to get a vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

In both cases, it appears that the House and Senate are committed to getting something done before they adjourn at midnight, but that's no guarantee. Bills can fall apart at the last minute in the final rush of the legislation in ways that are inexplicable even to those in the thick of the action. But with most other major issues out of the way, legislators should focus Monday on these two issues to make sure they don't fall through the cracks.

Among them, the bill with the easiest path to passage is probably one increasing the penalties for second-degree rape or second-degree sex offense of a child. Currently, the minimum penalty is just five years. The House passed legislation increasing that to 15 years, and the Senate bumped it up to 20. Either would mark a major improvement, and some staunch advocates for tougher penalties for sex offenders, including Republican Sens. Nancy Jacobs and Andy Harris, are urging their colleagues to simply adopt the 15-year standard to make sure the legislation doesn't fall through. That kind of thinking will be crucial in ensuring other bills pass too.

The biggest sticking point in the bill to revamp Maryland's sex offender registry is an amendment offered in a conference committee by Sen. Jim Brochin that would relax the rules of evidence to allow prior bad acts to be admissible at trial in sex-offender cases. The idea is an appealing one, since it might have made a real difference with Mr. Leggs. Part of what allowed him to repeatedly arrange plea deals was the fact that prosecutors couldn't bring up his long history of sex offenses. But there is legitimate concern about the idea, which has not been afforded the scrutiny of the legislature's hearing process. It might be a good idea, or it might have unfortunate unintended consequences.

It's something that deserves consideration in the future, but it shouldn't hold up the larger bill, which makes some important advances. For one thing, it makes sure the state remains eligible for certain federal crime-fighting funds – it is modeled after the registry in Ohio, the only state so far to receive certification under the federal Adam Walsh Act. The revamped registry would make it easier for residents to evaluate the severity of the crimes committed by people on the registry, and, once more states adopt the federal standards, it will help ensure that offenders receive the same level of scrutiny when they move from one state to another. That was an issue in Mr. Leggs' case; he was listed as a high-risk offender in Delaware but not in Maryland.

Similarly, the interlock legislation is hung up in the Judiciary Committee not because a majority doesn't support extending Maryland's requirements or because the committee's much-maligned chairman, Joseph F. Vallario Jr., isn't allowing it to come to a vote. Rather, the committee is debating whether the requirement for first-time offenders should kick in anytime someone is caught exceeding the state's limit of .08 percent blood alcohol or whether it should only apply to cases in which someone is found to have an extremely high BAC, say .15 percent.

The .08 standard is the one the legislature should adopt; New Mexico, which was the first state to enact such a requirement for first-time offenders, has seen fatalities from drunken-driving accidents drop by more than 30 percent. But interlock devices are required so rarely in Maryland now that any legislation would be a major improvement. If agreeing to the .15 standard is what's necessary to get this legislation out of Judiciary and onto the House floor – and an eventual conference committee with the Senate – that's what the committee should do.

Legislators have an opportunity Monday to take steps that will improve public safety in the state, but only if they don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

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