By andy Marso
WASHINGTON – Maryland lawmakers thought the flurry of seven bills passed last year brought the state’s sex offender registry in line with federal standards, but they discovered differently this week and now face a tough choice: Enact legislation to register juvenile offenders for life, or risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants.
The state will forfeit 10 percent of its Byrne Justice Assistance Grants for next fiscal year if it does not make the sex offender registry compliant with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 by June 30. That could mean registering sex offenders as young as 14 for the rest of their lives.
Bill Toohey, the director of communications at the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, said 10 percent would have amounted to about $600,000 this year.
A search of that office’s Awarded Grants Database revealed that 117 projects at the state, county and municipal level are receiving Byrne funding — from as little as $1,540 to as much as $278,332.
“There’s a whole wide array of services that are funded by (Byrne grants),” Toohey said. “That’s why it’s so valuable.”
State Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, sponsored a successful 2009 bill to give judges the authority to require the registration of juvenile sex offenders they considered a threat to reoffend. But Frosh said instituting mandatory lifetime registration of juveniles is something that requires careful deliberation.
“I’m not sure it’s something we ought to be leaping into,” Frosh said. “We are talking about juveniles, after all, and there is evidence that they can be rehabilitated.”
Frosh, a lawyer, has warned about possible unintended consequences of such measures in the past. He used the fad of teen “sexting,” or sending nude pictures to friends via cell phone, as an example of an offense that could lump juveniles in with violent criminals on the same registry.
“It’s a mark that will hamper somebody for the rest of his or her life,” Frosh said. “I mean, it’s necessary in some cases, but I’m not sure that we want to paint this with a broad brush.”
Maryland is not alone in its struggle for compliance — far from it. Frosh said only four states meet the federal standards for sex offender registry so far because the federal legislation is hard to interpret.
But law enforcement agencies across Maryland rely on Byrne grants.
Baltimore has 14 programs receiving Byrne funds, including a Prostitution Diversion program ($59,071 in grant money), an Inter-Agency War Room Coordination program ($207,440) and a “YouthBuild” program focused on reducing criminal recidivism rates for juveniles ($110,080).
The Baltimore Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice received $278,332 in grant money for its Sexual Assault Response program last year. According to GOCCP, the program “encourages reporting of sexual assaults, improves case investigation protocols and techniques, and provides support and services to victims.” It is using the grant money to provide training, equipment and personnel.
The program’s director, Sheryl Goldstein, said now would be an especially tough time to lose 10 percent of the Byrne grants.
“There really isn’t anywhere to make up money like that in today’s economic climate, unfortunately,” Goldstein said. “Everybody’s being squeezed and certainly local governments are feeling the pain of budget cuts and reduced revenues.”
Smaller cities also benefit from the Bryne grants. Brentwood, population 2,838, revived its police department in 2009 after it was disbanded in the 1970s. The town received $77,440 in grant money to modernize the new department with computers, a server and camera equipment.
“I don’t know what we would have done (without the Byrne grant),” Brentwood Mayor Xzavier Montgomery-Wright said. “We would have probably been operating on a much smaller scale, meaning maybe one computer system for a number of officers and an admin person. How do you function like that from a public safety standpoint?”
While there’s no discussion of losing the grants entirely, Toohey said losing even 10 percent “would make a very significant impact.”
But there’s some resistance in both branches of the State House to enacting the federal mandates for putting juveniles on the sex offender registry for life.
“I don’t think that any decisions have been made yet about necessarily how to address some of the concerns,” Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, said. “Even when we passed the bills (last year) the majority of us were doing it because we didn’t certainly want to lose any Byrne money. But at the same time, many of us thought that some of the federal requirements were pretty stringent. … Putting juveniles on a public sex offender registry was really something that gave all of us a great deal of heartburn.”