Death shows gaps in Maryland's supervision of sex offenders

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In 1999, then-Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. flew to Topeka, Kan., and spent a day walking the halls of a state-run facility where sex offenders could be locked up for life if they were deemed too dangerous for release once their prison terms ended.

Curran returned the next day to Annapolis, convinced that Maryland should have the same ability to keep the worst of the worst locked up for as long as it takes.

"I was persuaded that there really are some people that are so unbalanced that treatment takes a good, long while -- and maybe forever and ever," Curran said recently. "Sometimes the only place safe for society is to have them committed."

Eleven years later, more than 20 states, including Virginia, have adopted rules allowing sex offenders to be held for life, even after they have paid their court-determined debts to society.

But Maryland has largely gone another route, choosing instead to employ a web of supervision laws to surround offenders and stay poised to pounce on any violations and return offenders to prison.

There have been hundreds of quiet successes and countless individual efforts by police and parole officers that have kept the vast majority of Maryland's 4,000 sex offenders in check. But the Christmastime killing of an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl, allegedly by one of the state's high-risk registered sex offenders, has shaken public faith in the state's ability to identify and keep its worst offenders on a short leash.

A review of Maryland's efforts since Curran's trip to Kansas reveals that despite improvements, failures by members of all three branches of government during two administrations have left holes in Maryland's defense of children and victims of sexual assault.

The administration of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) introduced, and the General Assembly passed, flawed legislation; Gov. Martin O'Malley's (D) administration identified gaps in that law but then twice failed to persuade lawmakers to make fixes; and judges and prosecutors have almost never employed the powers that governors and the General Assembly granted them to seek mental health evaluations and extended supervision.

"There have been good steps, but there is obviously still work that needs to be done," said Lisae C. Jordan, an attorney for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "We're hopeful for many positive changes this year."

On Tuesday, Curran is scheduled to testify before the state House Judiciary Committee. He will probably voice support for so-called civil commitments of sex offenders beyond their prison terms. But most lawmakers say the economic reality for a state facing a nearly $2 billion budget gap -- as well as long-standing suspicion of civil commitments by liberal factions of Maryland's legislature -- will preclude them from launching a costly new program to hold violent sexual offenders indefinitely.

The committee is scheduled to begin hearing the first of at least 52 bills to tighten restrictions on sex offenders introduced since the December killing of Sarah Haley Foxwell. Most add to or amend current laws in hopes of closing loopholes that authorities say appear to have allowed Thomas Leggs Jr., 30, to have been out of jail while awaiting trail for a previous crime on the day police say he kidnapped, assaulted and killed Sarah and left her body in a rural area near Salisbury.

One bill will be O'Malley's third attempt to convince the General Assembly to approve corrections to and an expansion of a 2006 law that could have allowed for much lengthier, and even lifetime, supervision of sex offenders.

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