Parties, people unite against sex offenders

March 03, 2007|by DEE MAYBERRY

A sex offense against a child is totally nondiscriminating. It hits the rich and the poor, every race, religion and political preference. Even in the decent environment of Washington County it happens.

Some believe those who commit such crimes can be cured, even rehabilitated. To cover this possibility and to distinguish between such matters as a single "inappropriate" event and full-blown rape - often involving torture and death - sex offenders may be charged with first, second and third degree offenses and so on.

However, the inappropriate offense can become an escalating career of such activity. All of that is likely to end up in the hands of Maryland law enforcement, with involvement of prosecutors and the courts.

In 2005, a Florida child named Jessica Lunsford was snatched away, sexually abused and brutally murdered. The horror of her case and those like it in other states gave birth to Jessica's Law. Such legislation deals with punishment of sex offenders who target children.


Passed by increasing numbers of state legislatures, a form of Jessica's Law came to Maryland in an Annapolis legislative session last year. This version was a good start, but was seen by some as overly light and weakened by parole opportunities.

To insure maximum protection for Maryland children, to keep the most dangerous offenders off the streets, a new round of bills has been offered in the current assembly session. In bipartisan fashion, many Democrat and Republican senators and delegates have shown support for a tougher law. A call to the Washington County State's Attorney's Office reveals support locally for strengthening measures.

The process in the Maryland General Assembly involves a hearing by a committee in the Senate on a bill (given a number beginning with the letters SB for Senate Bill); a similar House offering, or "companion" has a different number (beginning with the letters HB) and goes before a House of Delegates committee.

Appropriate committees hold hearings, take testimony, accept public visitors, letters and phone calls to members. This is hard, time-consuming work for elected officials who must consider about 3,000 proposals on all topics in the brief three months they are in session each year.

Nonetheless, when it comes to Maryland children they try very hard to get it right. Some send out a call to citizens for their views - all welcome contact.

Bills voted "yes" out of designated committees later come to the floor of the two chambers for a yes or no vote by all members from various areas in the state.

Thus each bill, including Jessica's Law predator punishment, has several hurdles - committees first, the larger group second. Proposals can die at either point. Eventually successful legislation goes to the governor for signature or veto.

All this may be especially difficult for those in the larger chambers, because officials with expertise in such matters as taxation or land use, for example, cannot be expected to know everything about other types of problems - including child protection. These, in particular, need to be informed of public opinion before votes are scheduled.

Currently, the strengthening Senate and House committee bills carry the designations SB 413 and HB 930.

Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Judiciary Committee chairman is Joseph Vallario, Democrat from Prince George's/Calvert.

Letters in support of SB 413 can be addressed to Sen. Brian Frosh and members, Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Room two East, Miller Senate Bldg. Annapolis, MD 21401. Calls go to him at 410/841-3623.

Mail contact with Chairman Joseph Vallario goes to him (addressed: and members, House Judiciary Committee, Room 101, House office Bldg. Annapolis, MD 21401 or phone 410/841-3488).

Here in Washington County we have Dels. Chris Shank, LeRoy Myers, Bob McKee, John Donaghue and State Sen. Don Munson, who will be interested in public views about additional efforts to protect against child predators. The initiative crosses party lines.

Maryland officials will want to consider that the Florida legislators' version of Jessica's Law, which provides for tough mandatory sentences, has dropped that state's repeat offender rate to a slender 2 percent so far. Clearly anything over zero is too many, but the statistic demonstrates that the Florida approach works as a valuable deterrent.

A phone call or letter supporting the Maryland House and Senate bills takes little time. Some messages are only a single sentence with signature and address of the sender.

Instead of waiting for more studies, let's use this moment to provide a wonderful, nonpartisan gift of greater safety to the children of our state. Especially, let's inform officials from other Maryland areas that Washington County cares.

Dee Mayberry is a Boonsboro resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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