Maryland legislators seek to tighten restrictions on sex offenders

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; B02

In response to the Christmastime killing of 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell, Maryland delegates are expected to pass bills Friday that would form the backbone of lawmakers' efforts to tighten restrictions on sex offenders.

The package would ratchet up monitoring of the state's worst sexual predators, placing them under extended -- and potentially lifetime -- supervision. On a case-by-case basis, judges could use the legislation to require regular law enforcement checks, random polygraph testing, monitoring of computer usage, and limits on how close predators can live to schools, parks and playgrounds.

Together, the bills would also generally make it much more difficult for sex offenders to get out of prison early for good behavior. The measures would close loopholes in the state's sex-offender registry that police say have made it all but impossible in recent years to track offenders who claim to be homeless or living in one jurisdiction, when they could be spending most of their time somewhere else.

The bills are the product of almost two months of negotiations between members of the House Judiciary Committee, led by Rep. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Pr. George's), and the staffs of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

They amount to changes to the overlapping state laws regarding sex offenders that have been enacted over the past two decades. Unlike Virginia and many other states that have focused on longer prison terms and "civil commitments" (which allow judges to order predators to be held indefinitely after they are released from prison), Maryland has opted to rely on a web of laws to surround offenders with supervision requirements and stay poised to act on violations of those laws.

Sarah's killing in December revealed numerous gaps in the system, however. Her alleged killer, Thomas Leggs Jr., 30, had repeatedly beat sex-offense charges and received light sentences for others in cases in which prosecutors appeared to have not been fully aware of his prior record.

Leggs was out on bail in December when he allegedly kidnapped, assaulted and killed Sarah in a rural area near Salisbury. He had been arrested weeks earlier in Ocean City after, according to police, breaking into a woman's apartment and being found in the dark with his pants down.

Under the bills that will be voted on Thursday, Leggs's status would have been clear to police when they arrested him in Ocean City, and his request for bail would have received more scrutiny, with a judge having been required to consider his record before granting him release before trial.

Weeks after Sarah's killing, O'Malley said he was open to the idea of considering civil commitments, but with the state facing another multibillion-dollar deficit, he did not include the costly proposal in bills he submitted to the legislature in January.

Some Republicans are still fighting for civil commitment legislation, which does not appear likely to clear committees in the House or the Senate. However, a measure by House Republicans that would significantly increase mandatory sentences for sexual assaults on children that do not include weapons appeared headed toward approval in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. HB254 would increase mandatory minimums from five years to 20 years for second-degree sexual offenses against children.

Lisae C. Jordan, legislative and general counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Maryland Children's Alliance, said that the bills scheduled for a vote Friday amount to "a good start," but that the General Assembly must address other gaps.

Jordan was in Annapolis on Thursday to speak in support of HB1330, a bill that would require greater coordination and investigation when state child protective services workers think a child may be in regular contact with a sex offender. Current privacy restrictions preclude sharing such information between state agencies and police.

She also wants lawmakers to pass HB1043, a measure that would increase funding for victims and for centers where victims can go to have evidence collected after sexual assaults.

"Without admissible evidence, all the bills passing this year will be of no use" if suspects cannot be arrested and charged, she said.

The bills the House will vote on Friday are: HB473 and HB931, based on legislation proposed by O'Malley's administration, and HB289 (Smigiel); HB599 (Olszewski); HB1046 (Conway). Another administration bill, HB936, will be debated Friday and probably voted on Monday. A seventh bill, which would tighten child pornography laws, HB1053, passed the House on Thursday.

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