Tort Lobby Stands in the way of Tougher Child Sex Offender Laws

The kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell, in Salisbury last week—allegedly committed by registered sex offender Thomas James Leggs—is spurring calls for stricter child sex offender laws.

Jerry Norton, head of Citizens for Jessica’s Law in Maryland told the Baltimore Sun, “We need to make it clear to citizens of Maryland that we are not going to let these pedophiles molest our children with just a slap on the wrist. We’re tired of these watered-down sentences – they come out and do it again.”

Senator Nancy Jacobs of Harford County is preparing to re-file her bill eliminating diminution (good behavior) credits for child sex offenders currently incarcerated. Delegate Mike Smigiel from the Eastern Shore is also filing a similar bill and is looking into the possibility of wiretapping suspected child sex offenders.

The Foxwell case may indeed, as Jacobs said, “inspire” some legislators to push for tougher penalties. However, they will face perhaps the single most powerful faction in the General Assembly—the tort lobby. Trial lawyers dominate both the House and Senate judicial committees. Rarely does a bill deleterious to trial lawyers ever make it out of Joe Vallarrio’s or Brian Frosh’s desk drawers, the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees respectively.

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Norton, who led the effort to pass Jessica’s Law in 2007, knows better than anyone what supporters of tougher restrictions are up against. “What we succeeded in getting passed was just a piece of the pie,” Norton said. “Not because of lack of due diligence, on the contrary, the problem was that your Maryland legislators fell short.” They want you to believe that Maryland is really tough on child sex offenders, but here’s an example of what the REAL story is. Under the so-called Jessica’s Law, a convicted child molester is given a 20 year sentence for second degree child rape. Chances are very high the he/she will spend less than 10 years of that behind bars, because the current law provides the possibility of parole and additional time off for good behavior.”

Both Jacobs and Smigiel have tried to close the loophole Norton describes, only to have the aforementioned committee chairs sit on them.

To see just how powerful the tort lobby is let us look at the Herculean effort it took to get a version of Jessica’s Law with any teeth past the trial lawyers, who loathe the law’s mandatory minimums, which cut into their billable hours. I don’t mean to say trial lawyers don’t care about protecting children. It’s just that their concern is situational, as in only when there is a huge monetary settlement on the line.

An extremely watered down version of Jessica’s Law passed in the 2006 special session. Months prior to that during the regular 2006 session, then delegate Anthony Brown led the fight to kill the bill by strong arming delegates on the house floor to kill Jessica’s Law on a procedural vote. The prospects for strengthening Jessica’s Law in 2007 were bleak to say the least. However, a determined group of citizens led by Norton, the Maryland Federation of Republican Women, survivors, the Republican minority, and media allies pulled a recalcitrant Democratic majority over the finish line.

This loose coalition cajoled, hectored, shut down the phone lines, and swamped the email accounts of legislators to persuade them into passing the bill. Opponents of Jessica’s Law resorted to boorish tactics. Frosh made survivors and advocates wait hours to testify, and Vallarrio was unconscionably rude toward survivors who testified before his committee. The resulting public and media pressure on the Senate president’s office compelled Mike Miller to force Frosh to bring the bill up for a vote.

In Vallarrio’s case it took a Bill O’Reilly camera crew showing up on a Saturday morning committee vote to get old Joe to let the bill out of his committee. According to one judiciary committee member the bill was due to be voted down, but that changed once the O’Reilly camera crew rolled in. I’ll never forget witnessing Vallario’s apoplectic fit during his interview with O’Reilly’s producer, Jesse Waters.

Of course, once the spotlight was on him, Vallarrio added his name to the sponsor list and stood up before the entire house to pontificate about how Maryland needed to be at the forefront of protecting children. Stay classy Joe!

My point in rehashing this recent history is to emphasize the very steep road that lies ahead for any legislation to strengthen our state’s sex offender laws. It’s going to take a similar effort to pass even a modest reform. It means phone calls and emails to legislators, contacting media, writing letters to the editor, and convincing others to do the same. We must bring overwhelming public pressure to bear.

It can be done.

UPDATE: Delegate Smigiel has posted to his blog, specifics of what he believes we can and should do to strengthen Maryland’s child sex offender laws.

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