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Lawmakers push tighter sex offender measures

April 02, 2006|By TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

A series of articles about the difficulty of monitoring convicted sex offenders after their release prompted "lots of calls" from concerned constituents to Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

At about the same time, an incident at a Glen Burnie, Md., elementary school prompted outrage across the state when law enforcement officials were powerless to pursue criminal trespass charges against a registered sex offender spotted on the grounds of Glendale Elementary School.

There were no laws prohibiting convicted sex offenders from entering school property.

Since then, between the governor's office, the attorney general's office and individual legislators from throughout Maryland, 54 separate pieces of legislation dealing with sexual offenses have been proposed, many of them to tighten up state restrictions on sex offenders - particularly those offenders who prey on children.

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Lawmakers found themselves trying to deal with the issue on two fronts, said Shank, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

One is how long to keep sex offenders incarcerated; the other is how to monitor them when they get out.

"I've traditionally favored tougher penalties," Shank said, citing a number of studies indicating a high probability that sex offenders would reoffend once they are released.

Sentencing has been too light in Maryland, he said, and there hasn't been enough monitoring of convicted offenders after they're released.

"That is a type of offense that in many peoples' minds needs a lot more supervision" upon release, he said.

Both Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Attorney General Joseph Curran had crafted what Shank called "pretty comprehensive bills," mainly dealing with offenders who have left prison.

Legislators thus far have taken ideas from both - and from some other bills - and rolled them into one "omnibus" bill that the House approved March 24 by a vote of 139-1, with only Del. Nathaniel Oaks, D-Baltimore, voting against it. The bill is scheduled for a hearing next week in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Bipartisan - to a point

Piecing the bill together was "a very bipartisan effort, until the very end," Shank said.

The bill provides for increased monitoring for convicted sex offenders after they've been released from prison, doubling the time they must remain on the state's sex offender registry. It also prohibits sex offenders from trespassing on school property and gives courts the option of monitoring registered sex offenders electronically, something both Ehrlich and Curran had included in their proposals.

Separately, the House Judiciary Committee had approved a "Jessica's Law," named for 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, the Florida child abducted and murdered by a convicted sex offender.

The bill set a mandatory 25-year sentence for those convicted of a sex offense against children 13 and younger - no suspensions, no parole.

But when the bills went to the floor for a vote by the full House, Del. Anthony Brown, D-Prince George's, pressed delegates to amend Jessica's Law into the comprehensive bill, arguing that the mandatory sentence had a better chance of passing in the Senate if it were attached to the rest of the bill.

Republicans wanted a separate bill, but all of them voted for the eventual combined measure.

Covering all bases

If approved in the Senate, the bill will give courts more options than they now have for controlling sex offenders once they're released.

But on the "front end," sentencing needed some work, too, Shank said.

"You don't have to go far in Maryland to see the consequences" of the current system, he said, citing the Frederick County case of 9-year-old Christopher Ausherman, murdered in 2000.

Ausherman's killer had been released from prison five days before the murder after serving fewer than four years of a 10-year sentence for sexual assault.

The murder occurred during Shank's first term in the House, and "it has never been far from my mind," he said.

He believes many people would support more penalties and mandatory sentences for sex offenders. Otherwise, "most offenders will leave prison. We have to deal with that population."

Jessica's Law was one way of dealing with predatory offenders. Strong penalties exist, Shank said, but because of plea bargains and the ability to earn "good time" toward release, sentences don't always keep offenders locked up as long as he believes they should be.

And he wasn't the only member of the Judiciary Committee who felt that way.

Del. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, sponsored a bill that allows civil commitment - the state could commit certain sexually violent offenders to state mental facilities after their sentences are served if they meet a statutory definition of sexually violent predators prior to their release from prison.

The House has approved the bill; it is pending in the Senate.

But while he signed onto Zirkin's bill as a co-sponsor, Shank said a potential problem for civil commitment is the possibility that a sexual predator could prey on others in the facility.

He said he and Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, are looking at drafting legislation that would require assessments of convicted sex offenders before sentencing.

"About 60 percent of them fit antisocial" characteristics, he said. "They are not going to be subject to or respond to treatment.

"If judges had access" to such assessments, he said, "they might think twice about lighter sentences."

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