Maryland tries to stay ahead of sex offenders
California case likely to spark legislation in 2010, lawmakers say
The name, address, job information and photo of each of the 6,291 sex offenders living in Maryland are listed in an online searchable database available to the public.
Fifty-two of those offenders are being tracked using GPS technology.
But do these precautions make the public safer? Or, do they merely turn sex offenders into societal "pariahs," asked Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic.
Sex offenders were in the news in August when police alleged that a registered sex offender in California had kidnapped a girl and kept her hostage in his backyard for 18 years — during which time he fathered two children with her.
The highly publicized California case is renewing discussion about the effectiveness of measures to restrict where sex offenders can live. It also is refocusing attention on the enforcement of laws on the books. And it is adding to the likelihood that the General Assembly will see a spate of fresh legislation dealing with sex offenders when it reconvenes in January, lawmakers say.
Phillip Garrido, the man accused of that crime, was listed on California's registry and was prevented from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park where children regularly gather, according to state law. Maryland does not have such a law.
As a result of residency requirements, places like California are seeing more sex offenders move to rural areas, where it often is harder to track them. In places like Maryland, however, sex offenders tend to move to more urbanized areas.
"Is there any evidence that these statutes are making the community safer? No," Berlin said. "It leaves many (offenders) feeling disenfranchised.
"People tend to do better in general if they are able to earn a living and feel good about themselves. (The statutes) make it difficult for them to live in neighborhoods. It doesn't help them feel good or reintegrate themselves into society."
However, House Minority Whip Del. Christopher B. Shank (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown says law enforcement needs as many tools as possible to keep the public — and especially children — safe from sexual predators.
The problem in California was a failure of law enforcement, not with the sex offender registry or other state-mandated protections, he said.
"We can pass all the laws that we want in Annapolis," Shank said. "There also has to be follow-up from an enforcement perspective to make sure those laws are properly being enforced."
As of Sept. 2, Maryland had 1,032 incarcerated sex offenders and 5,259 active offenders listed on its registry, said Elizabeth Bartholomew, manager of the state's sex offender registry. About 3 percent of those offenders — 158 people — were considered "absconders," meaning their whereabouts are unknown.
About 4,117 of the sex offenders acted against children, Bartholomew said. Of those, 152 were noncompliant, which means they can be found but they have not been reporting a change of address as they are required to do.
About 118 child sex offenders in Maryland are absconders.
Unlike California, Maryland has no law preventing sex offenders from living near parks or schools. In fact, one sex offender in Silver Spring lives less than 100 feet from an elementary school, according to the state's registry.
The courts can impose restrictions on where an offender lives based on the crime, Bartholomew said.
It is already difficult for sex offenders to find housing and jobs, experts say. Restricting where they live often can push sex offenders into rural areas where there is less supervision — as was the case with Garrido — or force them to live on the streets.
"Maryland has not enacted residency restrictions for exactly that reason," Bartholomew said. "For four years the [Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services] has fought legislation to have residency restrictions because it is so difficult to track [offenders] once they are homeless. It makes people homeless. There would be no sex offenders in Baltimore city; they would all move to the counties and would live in their cars.
"Certainly, nobody wants a sex offender in their backyard, but better to know that he or she is there than not to know," Bartholomew said.
When residency restrictions for offenders have been proposed in past legislative sessions, lawmakers heard testimony that the restrictions caused problems in other states, said Shank, who served on the House Judiciary Committee for six years.
"It creates unintended consequences," he said. "In one state, all of the sex offenders showed up at one particular hotel, and it started causing problems because it congregated them all in that one area."
Residency restrictions also could lead clusters of sex offenders to move into rural areas — like those in parts of Washington County, which Shank represents.
"That is why I favor the enforcement approach rather than the legislature-micromanaging approach," he said. "You don't want to have a situation where you have people being forced out to where there is less supervision."
Facing homelessness or other difficulties because of the residency restrictions could cause sex offenders to abuse again, Bartholomew said.
Because Maryland has no residency restrictions for sex offenders, Bartholomew said the offenders stay fairly transient, but tend to live in urbanized areas, where there are more services and jobs. However, housing is hard to come by for those on the sex offender registry, and often offenders will just live wherever they can, she said.
Tracking sex offenders
Calvert County has about 100 registered sex offenders. They are required to visit the sheriff's office every six months to register, and for the most part they do, said Margie Moore, a civilian employee who assists with the registry.
The county has only one noncompliant offender, she said.
The sheriff's department also conducts home visits that ensure law enforcement is touching base with sex offenders at least four times each year, Moore said.
She said it is difficult for sex offenders to find housing in Calvert County, and Sgt. Tim Fridman says that about two offenders register a change of address each month.
Montgomery County has about 305 registered sex offenders, 195 of whom committed crimes against children, said Sgt. Ron Collins, who supervises the pedophile section of the Montgomery County Police Department.
"For the most part, we know where they are at," he said.
Offenders are either registering their addresses as required, or law enforcement finds the offenders have been incarcerated in other states. Collins said the police department currently has a warrant out on a sex offender who fled to his home in El Salvador.
"These guys are transient," he said. "But for the most part, they cooperate with police."
The police department notifies a community when a registered sex offender is moving into the area by distributing a flier in English and in Spanish, Collins said. The fliers have information about the offender and a photograph.
The key to successful monitoring of sex offenders is communication, Collins said. Montgomery police are in constant contact with other districts, departments and communities in an effort to monitor sex offenders, he said.
Legislative efforts likely
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Dist. 27A) of Upper Marlboro said that sex offenders have been a popular topic of legislation in past sessions, and he expects that to be the case again in 2010.
"I think the registry has come a long way, and we will continue to work and try to improve it," said Vallario, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "We will look for legislators to suggest things we can do to improve the registration."
He points to GPS technology — which is still in limited use for sex offenders — as one step lawmakers have taken to enhance public safety from sex offenders.
Shank, who proposed using GPS technology to track sex offenders in 2004, said one way to protect the public would be to extend parole and hand down longer prison sentences.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda said the case of the California offender likely will prompt some legislation during the 2010 General Assembly session.
"We're better off than we were 20 years ago before we had a registry, and does it work perfectly? I doubt it," said Frosh, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "I don't know how well we do in terms of parole and probation, supervising sex offenders."
In the 2009 legislative session, Frosh sponsored legislation, which was signed into law this year, that expanded the number of people who can register as sex offenders. His bill allowed for juvenile offenders who commit the most serious crimes, like rape, to register as sex offenders if certain conditions were met once they are out of the juvenile court system — typically at age 21.
But the registry is not enough to protect children, Bartholomew said.
"The registry is a tool, and it's not an end-all-be-all to what you need to do to protect your kids," she said. "Sex offenders will find a way, and they will be secretive about it. You just have to keep a good eye on your children."
To search for Maryland sex offenders, go to www.dpscs.state.md.us/sorSearch.