ANNAPOLIS – Two months after the murder of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell in Salisbury, state lawmakers are pushing for broad changes to laws and sentencing requirements for sex offenders.
Foxwell’s murder has galvanized the House Judiciary Committee, where delegates heard a full day of testimony Tuesday on 30 bills aimed at expanding registration requirements for offenders, mandating longer sentences and using GPS to monitor parolees.
But testimony Tuesday from prosecutors, public defenders and juvenile-justice advocates exposed disagreements on the implementation of proposed reforms, even as many speakers supported the bills’ intent.
Last month, Gov. Martin O’Malley reactivated the Sexual Offender Advisory Board, naming his father-in-law, former state Attorney General Joseph Curran, board chair.
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, introduced a companion bill to legislation backed by O’Malley that would add clinicians, advocates and prosecutors with experience working with victims to the advisory board.
Busch said Tuesday he was confident the Judiciary Committee would reach consensus on the measures proposed. He cited the committee’s work on the 2007 passage of Jessica’s Law, which created mandatory minimum sentences and cut parole for those convicted of child sexual abuse.
House sponsors intend to send a strong message to constituents about their commitment to protecting children and families from predators. But advocates cautioned that some of the sweeping legislation, while well-intentioned, compromises civil liberties and fails to address the risk factors that lead to such crimes.
“Sex offenders don’t have a great lobby,” said Tracy Velazquez of the Justice Policy Institute, an advocacy group dedicated to reducing incarceration rates nationwide. Velazquez testified at Tuesday’s hearing.
Some of the proposed bills are an attempt at compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act, also known as SORNA (Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act). States receiving funding for law enforcement through SORNA must be in compliance with federal guidelines by July of this year, or apply for an extension to retain funds.
Ohio is currently the only state in compliance with SORNA guidelines.
SORNA guidelines require the state to reclassify sex offenders to a standardized “tiered” system that could be tracked across the country. The guidelines would also increase the frequency that homeless offenders must register with police, and require that offenders register under any address where they spend significant time.
A bill proposed by Delegate William Frank, R-Baltimore County, would bring Maryland into compliance with those guidelines.
Several citizens testified that, though they received alerts on sex offenders living in their area through the current system, they were unaware of an offender who had moved to their neighborhood because he remained registered under a rental address in another zip code.
Other proposed legislation would follow SORNA guidelines as well. Registration would be expanded retroactively to those convicted before the sex-offender registry existed, and also require that juveniles register as sex offenders whether they are convicted in adult court or charged as juveniles for certain offenses.
Advocates from agencies including the Office of the Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland testified that some of the proposed changes could have unintended effects for victims and the community.
They cautioned that retroactive application could encompass people convicted of past acts that are no longer considered sex offenses, like consensual sodomy. They also said the current language of some of the bills could place juvenile offenders on the registry who do not pose a risk to the public.
But supporters of the reforms said these details distracted from the main objectives of keeping children and families safe from harm.
“What is more important, the rights of our community to protect themselves against sex offenders or the rights of convicted sex offenders?” said Stacy Mayer of the governor’s legislative office. “Should we not have the most serious offenders listed on our registry just because their conviction dates were long ago … If a 15-year-old rapist moved in next door and wanted to babysit your children, would you not want to know who that person is?”
Velazquez, of the Justice Policy Institute, said the registries create a false sense of security for the community, since most sexual abuse of children is by a family member or friend.
“Most children are victimized by people they know, or a family member,” she said. “Stranger danger is such a small part of the picture.”
Velazquez said her office supports several bills before the committee that require “truth in sentencing” for the worst offenders, thereby ending “good behavior” sentence-reduction credits. She also said she would support extended supervision of sex offenders after parole, including GPS tracking.
“We want to ensure that people who are truly dangerous stay in prison, and that the ones who are released stay on the good side of the law,” she said.
Cindy Boersma of the ACLU urged the committee to give the governor’s advisory board enough time to review the bills and make recommendations.
“These laws are not about tweaks and reclassifications,” she said. “These are serious and extreme changes that have led to real harm in other states.”
Committee co-chair Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, said the committee is only in the beginning stages of considering the implications of the bills presented Tuesday, but that some sort of comprehensive action was necessary to prevent crimes like the murder of Sarah Foxwell.
“People are very legitimately concerned about what happened (to Sarah Foxwell),” he said. “We need to listen to advocates on both sides and see what we need to do legislatively.”