O'Malley signs child sex offender, gang, education bills

Other measures change traffic court rules, raise insurance levels

May 04, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

With parents of children killed in sexual and gang attacks looking on, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed more than a half-dozen bills Tuesday increasing penalties for offenders and offering new protections for victims of such crimes.

The bills were among more than 200 signed into law by the governor four weeks after the General Assembly completed its annual session, including measures intended to improve the performance of public schools, extend new job protections to correctional officers and streamline the operations of traffic courts.

Nine of the bills were prompted by crimes that grabbed the attention of the public and spurred lawmakers to overcome deep divisions that had stymied action in the past.

They included a package of measures dealing with sexual offenses against children, passed into law after the Christmas week killing of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell of Salisbury. A convicted sexual offender, Thomas James Leggs, has been charged with murder, sexual assault, kidnapping and burglary in that case. The victim's mother, Jennifer Foxwell, and an aunt, Tracy Powell, were among those who pushed for the bills' package and stood behind the governor as he signed the legislation.

Jennifer Foxwell said the bills' enactment left her "a little more at peace with my daughter's death."

"We know that no child will have to endure what she endured," she said.

Wicomico County Sheriff Michael Lewis, who led the search for the missing girl and announced the discovery of her body on a rainy Christmas Day, said "every little bit helps" but was less hopeful of averting future attacks on children by offenders he described as "largely incapable of being rehabilitated.

"We're certainly going to try to make it tougher to commit these crimes," he said. "We're certainly not naïve enough to think that we're going to prevent all criminals from committing future crimes."

The measures increase the minimum and maximum sentences for offenders convicted of sexual attacks on children under 13; require lifetime parole supervision for repeat pedophiles; eliminate term-reducing incentives for such violators; and restrict pretrial release of those charged with such crimes.

O'Malley said Democrats and Republicans came together to pass bills that make Maryland the second state to comply with the provisions of the federal Adam Walsh Act, which calls on states to pass tough protections against sex offenders who prey on children.

"It was a bipartisan effort that passed these bills," the governor said.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an Eastern Shore Republican who was a lead sponsor of several of the sexual-offender measures, said he was disappointed with some of the compromises needed to secure passage but said he was pleased with the overall result.

"It sends a message to sex offenders nationwide: Maryland's not a place you want to come," he said.

Other bills seek to address the issue of gang violence in schools, in the spotlight after last May's fatal beating of 14-year-old Christopher Jones in Crofton. Christopher's mother, Jennifer Adkins, was among those present as O'Malley, flanked by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, signed the legislation into law.

One of those bills, sponsored by Busch, is intended to remove barriers to communication between law enforcement and school officials that have led to such unwanted outcomes as a rape victim's being assigned to the same school as her attackers.

"We want them to have direct communication when there's a problem," Busch said.

O'Malley also signed an education act that, among other things, will increase the time it will take before a public school teacher can gain tenure.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick called the governor's education bill "extremely important" to maintain school quality in Maryland, and said that without it the state would not meet federal guidelines for competitive grant programs.

Another education-related bill signed by the governor attempts to reduce the problem of bullying-related suicide bill by requiring schools to provide students in grades 6-12 with the phone number of the Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline. The bill, sponsored by Del. Susan L. M. Aumann, a Baltimore County Republican, requires that the number be in student handbooks and agendas, as well as being placed on students' school IDs.

A new law puts the burden on drivers who received traffic tickets to request a trial if they want a court appearance — a plan that Maryland police chiefs believe could save them millions of dollars in overtime each year — and a hard-fought bill that will increase the minimum amount of insurance a vehicle owner must carry to protect against personal injury liability claims.

A large delegation of correctional officers came to the State House for the signing of a bill that will give them new protections, including the right to a hearing before their peers when faced with disciplinary charges.

Another bill O'Malley signed will raise child-support formulas for the first time in decades. "If you're a custodial parent, you'll be a happy person," said Miller.

The governor also signed an administration bill capping in-state tuition increases at state colleges to 3 percent in the next year following four years of a freeze.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Christopher Jones was misidentified in earlier versions of this article. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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