Bevy of Sex Offender Bills Pass

ANNAPOLIS- One of the primary goals of the state legislature going into the 2010 General Assembly was to strengthen Maryland sexual predator laws, and while not all of the three dozen-plus bills introduced during the session were passed, state lawmakers did make significant strides toward the objective.

One of the hot-button issues going into the 2010 General Assembly session was the need to strengthen the state’s sex offender laws, spurred largely by the tragedy in the Salisbury area in December that claimed the life of 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell, whose body was found near Delmar on Christmas Day. In February, Thomas James Leggs, 30, a registered sex offender in both Maryland and Delaware, was indicted on first-degree murder charges in the death of Foxwell, and the tragic case promulgated renewed scrutiny of Maryland’s sexual predator laws.

Because the Foxwell tragedy occurred in District 38B, which includes Worcester and Somerset counties along with a portion of Wicomico, local Delegates James Mathias and Norman Conway were often at the center of the sex offender law debate, which became a centerpiece during the session. Mathias and Conway sponsored or co-sponsored at least nine individual bills aimed at tightening Maryland’s sex offender laws.

They also introduced, under the guise of the Eastern Shore Delegation the Sex Offender Omnibus Act of 2010, which, as its name suggests, covered a wealth of sex offender issues. Many of the bills introduced by the local delegation passed on their own or were absorbed by other bills introduced including the governor’s own sex offender legislation package.

When the session closed at midnight on Monday, a bevy of sex offender bills had been enacted, and perhaps just as importantly, the dialogue for change remains open.

“I’m very saddened by what happened,” said Mathias this week. “Because this happened in our district, Delegate Conway and myself took the lead on many of these bills and were at least conceptually involved in others.”

The bills that passed are expected to go a long way in tightening controls for known sex offenders in Maryland. For example, one bill that passed requires lifetime supervision for those convicted of the most severe crimes. Another will implement a 15-year mandatory sentence for those convicted of the most serious crimes against children. The existing minimum mandatory sentence is five years.

Perhaps the most important sex offender bill to pass this session will bring Maryland into compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act, which sets strict minimum standards for sex offender restrictions. Thus far, only Ohio is in compliance with the federal act. Another bill passed this session reinstates the state’s Sex Offender Advisory Board with former Attorney General Joseph Curran at the helm.

Yet another bill that passed eliminates good behavior credits and other loopholes for violent or repeat offenders to help ensure they remain behind bars for the duration of their sentences. Another bill would prohibit District Court-level commissioners from authorizing a pre-trial release of a defendant who is a registered sex offender, instead passing the responsibility to a judge or a jury.

This bill is particularly poignant in the Foxwell case because Leggs was out on bail in December when he allegedly kidnapped, assaulted and killed the girl. Leggs had been arrested in Ocean City in September, but he was released on a relatively small bond because the court commissioner was unaware of his sexually violent past.

While the bills that passed this session go a long way in tightening Maryland’s sexual predator laws, they could be just a jumping-off point for future legislation.

“We have strengthened these laws, but it’s only the beginning,” said Mathias. “Unfortunately, the ways things are now in our country, these horrifying acts can and will happen again, but we have a process here we’ll glean regularly and a living process in place going forward.”

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