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Bill would confine sexual predators indefinitely

February 06, 2001|By LAURA ERNDE

Bill would confine sexual predators indefinitely



ANNAPOLIS - a Senate committee began work Tuesday on legislation, prompted by the death of a 9-year-old Frederick, Md., boy, that would allow violent sexual predators to be confined indefinitely in a mental hospital.

The proposed legislation would not have prevented the death of Christopher Ausherman, however. Elmer Spencer Jr., charged in Christopher's rape and murder, would not have come under the program because his previous case had been plea bargained down to an assault charge.

Ausherman was beaten, strangled and assaulted, and his naked body was left in a Little League baseball field dugout. Spencer, who had a history of sexual offenses against children and women, was released from prison five days before the youngster was killed.

But advocates of the program testified Tuesday it would protect other children from the clutches of pedophiles.

"I can just tell you one horror story after another. In the end, we don't pass this bill and we'll have another case. It won't be long, believe me," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore, who filed the Senate version of a bill sponsored Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

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Modeled after a Kansas law that has withstood scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court, the bill would allow the state to seek indefinite commitment in a mental institution for people who are convicted of violent sexual crimes and have a strong likelihood of repeating those crimes when they are released from prison. The cases would be reviewed yearly.

"These are the worst of the worst," Stone said.

Members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which heard opponents testify against the bill Tuesday, seemed skeptical about whether such a program would work.

Locking predators in prison for life is a better solution to the problem, said Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Eastern Shore, the committee chairman.

"We have an obligation to protect people and if we have to put them in jail for the rest of their lives, that's what we should do," he said.

Stone agreed, but said a life sentence could be ruled unconstitutional.

And it wouldn't apply to the 300 sexual offenders who will be released from Maryland prisons this year, said Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran.

Psychiatrists testified that pedophiles cannot be cured, although some can be taught to control their impulses, much like alcoholics can control their drinking.

Better solutions to the problem include prison treatment programs and closer supervision after offenders are released from prison, opponents said.

When he was released from prison, Spencer had no job, no place to live and no one monitoring him, said J. Theodore Weiseman, deputy counsel for the Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore.

Another drawback to the program may be its cost. The Department of Legislative Services estimates it would cost $5.5 million in the upcoming fiscal year and $51.1 million a year by 2006.

Curran said he believes the estimates are wrong. While at first it would cost $100,000 a year per patient, those costs would drop to $30,000 a year per patient, which is not much more than the cost of keeping someone in prison, he said.

The bill is one of numerous proposals made in the wake of Christopher's death. Sen. Timothy Ferguson, R-Frederick/Carroll, has sponsored bills to toughen criminal penalties.

"If we don't pass something, I think we're all going to be labeled soft on crime," Ferguson said.

Hecht said she met with Christopher's mom and other family members on Saturday to discuss her proposal. She doesn't know yet if they will testify.

"I told them if it hadn't been Christopher, someone else would have been victimized. Christopher was in the wrong place at the wrong time and she said, 'No. Elmer Spencer was in the wrong place at the wrong time,'" Hecht said.

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