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Lawmakers seek criminal law reforms

November 30, 2000

Lawmakers seek criminal law reforms



By LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer


FREDERICK, Md. - More Frederick County officials stepped forward Thursday calling for reform of Maryland's criminal laws in response to the sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old Frederick boy.

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Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle and Sen. Timothy Ferguson, R-Frederick/Carroll, plan to introduce a bill abolishing early prison release.

Elmer Spencer Jr., 44, who is charged with the Nov. 19 murder of Christopher Ausherman, had been released from the Maryland Correctional Training Center south of Hagerstown early because of good-time credits accrued during the more than 13 years he served on a previous 22-year sentence for sexually assaulting a child, prison officials have said.

Rolle and Ferguson made their announcement at Frederick City Hall Thursday, two days after Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, renewed her push for tougher sex offender laws.

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Both Hecht and Ferguson, although they belong to different parties and different chambers of the Maryland General Assembly, said they are willing to work together to make sure something gets done during the next legislative session, which begins in January.

"If there was ever a time for bipartisanship, this is it," said Ferguson, a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that deals with criminal legislation.

Rolle said he has long advocated eliminating early release, in part because the guidelines are so confusing that even lawyers can't decipher them.

Lawmakers have been reluctant to eliminate good-time credits because they are often used as an incentive for inmates to behave better.

Rolle said the correctional system has other privileges and punishments that can be used to control prisoners.

Ferguson said if his fellow lawmakers are unwilling to eliminate early release, they should at least abolish it for sexual predators.

Hecht said she supports the effort to abolish parole, but believes the state also needs to provide mental health treatment to sex offenders.

That's why she wants the legislature to create a task force to recommend changes in sentencing, treatment, release and oversight of sexual offenders.

Hecht is also proposing that:

-- Convicted sexual offenders who are likely to repeat their offenses be placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene until they are no longer a risk to society. First introduced as the Sexually Violent Predator Act of 1998, the bill is most aptly called "Christopher's Law," she said.

-- The crime of child abuse be added to the list of violent crimes. Additional penalties would be applied to repeat offenders.

-- Inmates convicted of child abuse be ineligible to receive good-time credits.

-- It be made a crime to travel or conspire to travel for the purpose of engaging in prohibited sexual activities with someone under 18.

Hecht's bills, introduced over the last three years, have never made it out of the House Judiary Committee.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said he blames the Maryland General Assembly for not addressing the problem earlier.

"The soft-on-crime liberals have killed it. Shame on them," he said.

Meanwhile, Spencer's case will be presented to a grand jury as soon as Dec. 9, Rolle said.

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