ANNAPOLIS – Though Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Jr. said giving “real teeth” to sex offender laws is something the General Assembly must do this year, representatives of various interested groups cautioned legislators that the proposals could put a burden on the criminal justice and mental health systems.
Before a packed Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing Thursday, Curran spoke on behalf of the toughened sex offender bill he wrote, one of eight considered by the committee during a three-hour hearing. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. and Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley have also proposed new laws to crack down on sex crime convicts.
“Our research with other states shows that Maryland could be among the more aggressive on this issue,” Curran said.
Curran said that the two major priorities of his bill are enhanced community notification that sex offenders have moved into a neighborhood, and increased monitoring of offenders who have been released.
The first would call for community meetings, mailings, flyers and newspaper ads; the second would stipulate at least three years of parole and suggests that the public be able to report on offenders on a Web site. Currently, notification consists solely of Internet postings of offenders within a particular ZIP code.
“There is no system of control in regard to these offenders,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Southern Maryland, who spoke before the committee as a sponsor of Curran’s bill.
Daniel Zanchettin of the state Office of the Public Defender, criticized the bill, however, saying that it fails to provide adequate treatment for offenders. He said that making it a felony for an offender to fail to register upon moving, as several of the bills propose, would increase costs for the already overloaded public defender’s office and the courts. Using the Internet for reporting offenders is “ripe for abuse,” he said.
Gary May, speaking on behalf of Maryland police chiefs and sheriffs, said that the provisions for heightened notification will put an undue burden on law enforcement officers and that notification methods like newspaper ads could be “prohibitively expensive.”
“Our officers aren’t letter carriers,” he said. “We feel this would eat significantly into their discretionary time.”
In a written statement, the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concerns that the bill does not allow exceptions to the penalty for failing to register for individuals suffering from mental illness. The ACLU said the bill would “effectively strip judges of their discretion to weigh mitigating circumstances in the imposition of extended sexual offender parole supervision.”
Lisae Jordan, speaking for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said that the distinction between offenders who victimize adults and those who victimize children is unclear, as many offenders against children have victimized adults as well.
“[The bill] is both over inclusive and under inclusive as currently drafted,” she said.
O’Malley’s and Ehrlich’s proposals on the issue are similar to Curran’s, though details vary somewhat concerning factors like the use of global positioning system tracking, the creation of a task force or advisory board, DNA sampling of offenders, and prohibitions for offenders entering areas where children are likely to congregate.
Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County, who introduced or cosponsored all but one of the bills presented to the committee, said that much of the rush for a sex offender crackdown has been spurred on by recent incidents in Florida and Kansas and laws that resulted from them.
“We always have a surge of these types of bills when something happens,” he said, pointing out that the limited notification stipulations of prior laws have given in to “the latest fad,” which is “to let everyone know.”
Two other bills before the committee stirred dissent among the mental health community because they would make it mandatory for “sexually violent predators” to be committed to state facilities. Mental health experts insisted that the state’s already-overcrowded facilities are for treatment rather than de facto incarceration, as there is no treatment for “sociopaths.” They pointed out that people in mental institutions are usually highly vulnerable to sexual assault, and that it would be a disservice to place offenders in the same facilities.