ANNAPOLIS – They’ve been called the “progeny” of Megan’s Law, and several variations of the law inspired by the brutal sexual assault of a New Jersey 7- year-old occupied the Maryland General Assembly this session, but only one is likely to become law.
The rape and strangulation of Megan Kanka by a neighbor with a history of sexual offenses led several states and the federal government to enact laws requiring police to notify communities when convicted sex offenders move in.
This year Maryland legislators sought to take the popular law even farther. They considered posting the names of sex offenders on the Internet, granting legal immunity to groups that mistakenly list innocent people as sex offenders, and requiring sex offenders to submit their names to a public registry for the rest of their lives.
Another proposal would have committed some violent sexual predators to mental institutions after they’ve served their regular sentences.
The American Civil Liberties Union and some legislators accused proponents of firing darts at easy political targets with no proof that the plans will do any good.
“After terrible tragedies happen, people do a lot of hand-wringing,” said the ACLU’s Suzanne Smith. “For Megan’s Law and its progeny, some legislators said that it is a cheap way of protecting children. I think it’s just cheap.”
Only the plan to post sex offender’s names on the Internet was approved by the legislature. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign it into law.
“The governor supports the concept,” said Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann of the Internet sex registry. “He believes people in the community have a right to that information.”
If the bill is signed, Maryland will join 10 other states in posting the names of sexual predators on the Internet. Before, Maryland’s sex offender registry, containing the names of nearly 500 sex felons, was available to members of the public only on request and distributed to community groups.
But publicizing sex offender’s names on the Internet encourages vigilantism, stigmatizes innocent family victims, and adds more punishments to individuals who had already served time for their crimes, the ACLU argued.
Opponents also point out that innocent people have been harmed by mistakes made in local registry databases. The ACLU noted that its national office already has received two complaints from Virginia residents whose names were wrongly posted on the sex offender site.
And a Harford County woman’s home address was mistakenly added to the Maryland list that was distributed to neighborhood groups. The woman said her home was vandalized and she received death threats. In a floor debate, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore, said that sex offenders have become easy political targets. “This is one of those feel-good, ultra-conservative pieces of legislation,” The Baltimore Sun quoted McFadden as saying of the Internet sex registry law. “That doesn’t really attack the problems that these individuals have.”