Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) on Saturday proposed strengthening penalties and stepping up oversight of sex offenders, offering the latest in a flurry of initiatives from Maryland politicians on the issue.
"The insidious nature of this problem requires us to make Maryland a model," Ehrlich said during an address to an annual gathering of the Maryland Association of Counties that traditionally has served as a preview of coming legislation.
Ehrlich proposed that more of the most violent sexual offenders receive life prison sentences and that those who are released be subject to lifetime electronic monitoring. He also said that all sex offenders should be required to appear twice a year in person to update registry listings. Under current law, some offenders are free to mail in updates.
Ehrlich's address, which focused largely on crimes against children, came just days after Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, offered a package of statewide proposals on the same subject. O'Malley's six-point plan incorporated an initiative unveiled last month by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) to require lifetime supervision for the most dangerous categories of sex offenders.
O'Malley also proposed a controversial plan to require child sex offenders -- whom O'Malley said cannot be rehabilitated -- to wear ankle bracelets for life that would allow law enforcement officials to track their locations with Global Positioning System technology. Florida is adopting that system.
Steve Kearney, an O'Malley spokesman, said Saturday that Ehrlich's plan is "much weaker" than O'Malley's. Even requiring twice-a-year in-person appearances, he said, would continue a flawed "honor system" under which offenders can provide false addresses.
A state task force is looking at the range of offenders who would be subject to electronic monitoring under Ehrlich's plan. But the mayor's plan would likely apply to a far broader range of people than Ehrlich's.
Sex offenders are an easy political target because they have few sympathizers. The issue of tracking them is all but certain to be taken up during the next session of the Maryland General Assembly, which begins in January, as state lawmakers running for reelection in 2006 also highlight the issue.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, another Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, Saturday accused O'Malley and Ehrlich of trying to score political points with the issue. "Clearly, the state of Maryland is failing to get the job done when it comes to protecting the public from sexual predators," Duncan said in a statement. "Better tracking, more reliable databases and a serious commitment to this issue are all needed. However, the political gamesmanship that is being played does nothing to prevent attacks or help the victims of these horrendous crimes."
Questions about Maryland's system came to light last month with the arrest of a convicted rapist accused of killing his 13-year-old stepdaughter in Baltimore County. Although the suspect was included in the state's sex offender registry, he had failed to update his registration for years.
But the offices of several Maryland prosecutors suggested last week that the state is not experiencing a significant uptick in sexual offenses. The issue, they said, has been largely driven by a series of cases across the country that have exposed vulnerabilities in the way states track offenders.
Convicted sex offenders were charged in the killings of two Florida girls in separate incidents this year. And last month, police in Idaho arrested a registered sex offender in the kidnapping of an 8-year-old girl and her 9-year-old brother. The boy's remains were found in a campground, but the girl was returned home safely.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of a committee that has jurisdiction over sexual offender legislation, said in an interview that it is premature to predict what might pass next year.
"There certainly seems to be a bandwagon effect here," Frosh said. "It's an ugly crime, and certainly one we want to stamp out, but it doesn't seem to be raging out of control."
In his address yesterday, Ehrlich said he would provide an additional $700,000 in his proposed budget next year to help law-enforcement agencies improve sex offender registries. He also pledged increased penalties for those who fail to comply.
Ehrlich also announced a new Web site, www.socem.info, that will include information on sex offenders who do not keep their registrations current.