ANNAPOLIS – Stricter monitoring and longer sentences for sex offenders who live in Maryland are shaping up as top priorities for lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., with the support of Speaker of the House Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., submitted on Wednesday a two-part approach to keeping a closer eye on sexual predators. Meanwhile, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed his own measures for monitoring offenders, and other lawmakers are weighing in as well.
“The time has come for Maryland to move forward with this issue,” Miller said. “We can’t make all parts of the state 100 percent free of sexual predators, but we can do better.”
The first part of Curran’s proposal would require all sex offenders to be monitored for a minimum of three years after being released from jail or parole. At that point, a specialized team of law enforcement officials and trained counselors would decide whether to continue supervision for additional years, and potentially for life. The bill would also authorize the parole commissioners to administer polygraph tests and use satellite tracking devices to keep tabs on offenders’ whereabouts at all times.
Also, the legislative package would broaden notification requirements when sex offenders move into a community. Under current law, county police departments and school superintendents are told when a name is added to the state-run registry of sex offenders. But Curran said notification needs to be expanded to include day cares centers, recreation centers and Little Leagues, for example. Law enforcement officers would have the authority to send out letters or go door-to-door, if they deem such action necessary.
“A better informed community person is a better protected community person,” Curran said.
Ehrlich’s plan, which he outlined in August, would increase penalties for sexually violent predators to a maximum of life imprisonment, and would possibly include lifetime electronic monitoring.
The proposal would also increase penalties for noncompliance with state sex offender laws from a misdemeanor to a felony, which would allow the criminals to be extradited across state lines, said Henry Falwell, spokesman for the governor.
“The governor’s plan is much stronger,” he said, adding that Ehrlich welcomes the attorney general to the conversation.
Several lawmakers have filed their own bills that focus on protecting communities from sexual predators. For example, Sen. James E. DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, has proposed requiring violent offenders to enter a psychiatric treatment upon their release from jail. The measure, modeled after a Kansas law, would “keep them off the streets and out of society.”
Another proposal would sentence sex offenders to a minimum of 25 years behind bars, adopted from a Florida law.
Compared to other states, Curran said Maryland ranks in the middle in its handling of sex offenders, and 19 states have stricter laws. As of last month, 12 states have passed provisions for using electronic devices to track offenders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the past four years, 28 states have enacted laws to increase penalties and jail sentences for sex crimes.
It is a hot topic right now in statehouses across the country, said Russell Butler of the Maryland Crime Victim’s Resource Center. But he worries that politics may get in the way of making real changes.
“Hopefully all the people who are making proposals will come together and there will be some strong change in Maryland’s law to make the system better for victims and potential victims,” he said.
While there’s an abundance of proposals on the issue, the real problem is the lack of funding to implement them, said Susan Howley, director of public policy for the National Center for Victims. Many state bills, along with pending federal legislation, have called for longer jail sentences and supervision periods, which can add millions to the cost.
“You have to dedicate the officers and resources,” she said. “What states really need is the money to make what they already have in place work.” Curran said incremental increases in the cost of monitoring sex offenders for longer periods of time will “be worth the safety gained from it.”