Amid the frenzied effort to approve an electricity rate plan, lawmakers appeared close last night to approving an election-year bill aimed at cracking down on convicted sex offenders.
The measure would require strict monitoring of sex offenders once they are released from prison and mandatory prison sentences for the worst sexual predators.
The General Assembly failed to pass such legislation during the legislative session that ended in April. But the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously yesterday for a compromise bill, and its Senate counterpart also approved the measure. Early this morning, the Senate gave its version preliminary approval, then recessed. If the measure passes, it will go to the House.
For much of the day, Republicans and Democrats battled over a provision that would require a minimum sentence of 25 years for adults convicted of certain sex offenses or attempts to commit those crimes against victims younger than 13.
The provision, known as "Jessica's Law," is modeled on legislation passed in Florida after a 9-year-old girl was abducted and killed by a convicted sex offender.
The compromise version would require a mandatory 25-year minimum sentence for anyone convicted of first-degree sex offense or first-degree rape and a five-year sentence for anyone convicted of second-degree sex offense or second-degree rape. Offenders would be eligible for parole.
The proposal would also require sex offenders to be monitored, after their release from prison, for a period ranging from three years to the rest of their lives. The worst offenders would have to register with authorities every three months, and failing to do so would be a felony.
"It's a good compromise," said Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Democrat from Prince George's County who is Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's running mate. "We enhance the penalties for sexual offenses on our most vulnerable children."
Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican who was the initial sponsor of the "Jessica's Law" proposal, was pleased with the compromise.
"I have to see the final product, and I hope they are not playing any last-minute games," he said. "But right now, this is a significant step forward for the children of our state."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who made a major push this year for tougher sex-offender laws, said early in the evening that he expected the legislature to pass a bill close to the one he wanted. He said he would be willing to accept some compromises to crack down on sexual predators.
"It's heading toward three-quarters of a loaf, and if it's three-quarters of a loaf, I will likely take it," Ehrlich said.
Earlier in the day, however, partisan debate was reminiscent of the final hours of the General Assembly's regular session, when mandatory minimum sentences became the sticking point that prevented passage of a comprehensive sex-offender bill.
Democrats blamed Republicans for using election-year politicking on an issue that initially had bipartisan support.
"Since the session ended, the Republicans and the governor have implied that the General Assembly failed to pass Jessica's Law," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "It's all about politics. The Republicans want to force the Democrats to vote on the issue and use it during the campaign."
Cracking down on sex offenders emerged as a political issue during this year's regular session, with proposals endorsed by the state's leading politicians, including Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., Ehrlich and O'Malley.
The proposals, all similar, included stringent monitoring for child offenders and stiff penalties for offenders who fail to register with monitoring authorities. But none included mandatory minimum sentences.
Late in the session, when O'Donnell proposed a measure calling for mandatory minimums, many Democrats opposed it, saying it would unfairly take away a judge's discretionary powers. The House approved the provision, amending it into a broader sex-offender bill. But the bill did not make it out of committee in the Senate. And in the final hours of the legislature, a conference committee failed to convene to compromise on the differences.
Yesterday, Curran said he would be disappointed if disagreements over sentencing prevented the monitoring reforms from becoming law.
"I have been hoping they would deal with the issue of needing to monitor sex offenders and notify the communities about them," he said. "That is key."
O'Donnell said the sentencing provision was essential to any law and praised Ehrlich for making the issue a part of the special session. "The governor recognizes that the protection of our children is as important as the price of energy," he said.
He denied that lawmakers used the issue for political leverage.
"This is about kids," he said, "not about politics."