Legislators, Governor Introduce Sex Offender Bills

BERLIN – As promised, a renewed effort to strengthen Maryland’s sexual predator laws, borne out of the late December tragedy that claimed the life of an 11-year-old girl in Wicomico County, is gaining momentum in the General Assembly with dozens of bills introduced including one by the governor and another by Worcester County’s delegation in the House.

When Sarah Haley Foxwell’s body was found near Delmar on Christmas Day, the victim of an apparent abduction and murder by a repeat sex offender registered in both Maryland and Delaware, the call went out to strengthen Maryland’s existing sexual predator laws in the hopes of preventing another tragedy in the future. Lawmakers have responded in kind in the first few weeks of the General Assembly session with no less than 24 bills introduced including 14 in the House and 10 in the Senate.

This week, Delegates Norm Conway and James Mathias, who represent Worcester County and a vast section of the Lower Shore, introduced their own version of a bill that would, among other things, expand sex offender registration information and data sharing between neighboring states. Mathias said this week the legislation was a direct result of the Foxwell tragedy and, if approved, would bring Maryland’s law into compliance with federal law.

“Unfortunately, this tragic incident happened in our district,” he said. “We have a moral responsibility to be very determined and aggressive to intensify these laws as much as possible.”

Mathias said the Foxwell tragedy was the impetus for a massive fact-gathering effort to compare Maryland’s existing sex offender laws to other states to determine where the state’s laws are lacking and how they have been effective. The bill he is sponsoring with Conway would mirror the federal Adam Walsh law approved in 2006 and strengthened in 2009.

“Hours after this tragedy unfolded, we were able to set in motion a comparison of Maryland’s laws to other states,” he said. “That information is complete and we’re using it as a matrix as we move forward with this.”

With no less than 24 bills introduced thus far in the General Assembly, including two co-sponsored by Senator Lowell Stoltzfus, who represents Worcester County and the Lower Shore, it is clear some substantial changes in the state’s sex offender laws will come out of the current session.

“There is going to be a whole battery of bills debated this session and all of them deserve careful consideration,” said Mathias. “I’m not sure at this point how it will all work out, but Maryland’s laws will be strengthened.”

Meanwhile, Governor Martin O’Malley on Wednesday introduced his own legislation aimed at strengthening Maryland’s sex offender laws. The governor’s series of initiatives includes, among other things, lifetime supervision for certain sex offenders, stronger notification and registration procedures, the addition of those convicted of indecent exposure of the possession of child pornography on the registrations and criminal background checks for employees of facilities that care for or supervise children.

“There should be absolutely no mercy shown to anyone who harms a child in our state, and our legislation serves to impose the strictest standards of supervision to ensure that Maryland’s children are protected,” O’Malley said this week. “There is a lot we do better than we used to as a state with regard to public safety, and there still a lot of work to be done.”

Another of O’Malley’s initiatives announced this week is reconvening the state’s Sexual Offender Advisory Board, which was first established in 2006 and charged with making recommendations on policy. However, members of that initial board were not required to have any special skills necessary for certifying programs, conducting training or even making policy decisions. For that reason, O’Malley announced this week he is tapping former Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran to chair the panel this time around.

“I have long been a supporter of lifetime supervision for our state’s most violent sexual predators,” Curran said this week. “The proposed board will ensure that experts with specialized experience working with both victims and offenders are addressing these extremely serious cases.”

Curran, incidentally O’Malley’s father-in-law, said this week he is ready to hit the ground running should the legislature approve reconstituting the Sexual Offender Advisory Board and charging it with the responsibility of taking a close look at Maryland’s existing laws and opportunities to strengthen them.

“I look forward to serving as the board’s chair and want to get to work immediately,” he said. “I plan to meet with the staff tomorrow evening [Thursday] and to convene a board meeting as soon as next week.”