In the pre-dawn hours yesterday of the General Assembly's special session, lawmakers passed a bill requiring prison sentences of at least 25 years for the most dangerous child sex offenders.
The final vote on the measure came about 4:30 a.m., after exhausted Democratic and Republican negotiators had spent much of the night fashioning a compromise over the lengths of sentences. The House of Delegates voted unanimously for the bill while the Senate approved it 39-5, with three members not voting.
Although the session's focus was utility rate increases, lawmakers also took up the far-reaching bill designed to punish convicted sex offenders - legislation that, despite bipartisan support, had failed to pass after negotiations broke down in the final hours of the Assembly's regular session this spring.
"I'm very pleased with the bill," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., adding that his only criticism was that the mandatory sentences do not prohibit parole. He also said he would make an announcement on the issue of sexual predators next week but did not elaborate.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who pushed a similar proposal last summer, said the bill brings Maryland "ahead of a lot of states" in how it tracks convicted child molesters.
Curran said that while the final bill did not have all the elements he preferred, he was happy that the Assembly's debates over mandatory minimum sentences did not kill it.
"Overall, we are pleased," Curran said. "We got the components that law enforcement told us to go after. And it passed with bipartisan support, which is great."
The legislation calls for adults convicted of first-degree sexual offense or first-degree rape involving a child 13 or younger to receive a sentence of at least 25 years. The penalties for adults convicted of second-degree sex offense or second-degree rape, also involving a child 13 or younger, would be five years.
The measure requires convicted sex offenders to submit DNA samples, register with parole authorities and be supervised for periods ranging from three years to life. Failing to register would be a felony.
"The biggest problem going into last session was that the registry wasn't working," said Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "You literally had thousands of people who were supposedly being tracked."
Baltimore's state's attorney's office issued a statement saying that while it applauded the legislature's efforts to protect vulnerable victims, minimum sentences often result in fewer convictions.
"This new law will likely require more kids to testify and reduce the number of plea bargains," said Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the state attorney's office. "And because so many victims are terrified to testify before strangers, prosecutors could potentially lose cases on issues related to the state's ability to call vulnerable children as key trial witnesses."
The Democratic-controlled legislature was under pressure to pass a bill that would crack down on child sex offenders.
The bill acted on by the legislature had been unveiled by Ehrlich this week, including the mandatory minimum provision modeled after "Jessica's Law," a Florida statute named for a 9-year-old girl killed by a convicted child molester.
Ehrlich asked lawmakers to take up the issue during the special session. But Democrats complained that the governor used the minimum sentences as a political maneuver.
"I think politics was the driving force, not policy," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who voted against the bill, objecting that mandatory minimum sentences take away a judge's discretion. "There was no 72 percent increase in sexual offense as there was a 72 percent increase in electricity rates. If there was, I didn't hear anyone making a persuasive argument."
Since last year, the issue has been entwined in election-year politics, with some of the state's leading politicians endorsing plans to get tough on sex offenders, including Curran, Ehrlich and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Curran's son-in-law who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
Beginning last night, partisan negotiations on the House and Senate versions of the bill went on for hours. Key members of the committees who had worked on the sex offender legislation huddled in the House lounge to hash out their differences.
The hasty meeting took place at the same time the full House was debating the electric-rates proposal. At one point, the House lawmakers rushed back into the chambers for a vote on a crucial amendment.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican who pushed for the minimum sentencing requirements, said lawmakers underestimated the bill's importance in the regular session.
"But they started to see that citizens of the state were upset that we hadn't done anything to protect children," she said. "Now we got something that is far more than we had the opportunity to get before."