- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2000

Maryland lawmakers said yesterday the killing of 9-year-old Christopher Ausherman may create the political will to keep convicted sexual predators from going back into communities where they have the opportunity to find new victims.

"Sometimes you have to put a face to this, sometimes you have to make it personal," Delegate Sue Hecht, Frederick Democrat, said yesterday. She then announced she would again propose measures she has offered in the past three General Assembly sessions aimed at protecting the public from sexual offenders and child abusers.

Christopher was found beaten, bloody and unclothed Nov. 20 at a baseball field in Frederick near his home less than 24 hours after he was reported missing, and less than a week after the man charged in his death, Elmer Spencer Jr., was freed from a state prison under mandatory release law.

A judge last week refused to release Spencer, who has remained in jail since police arrested him late Nov. 20 at a Frederick homeless shelter.

Frederick police are awaiting lab reports to learn whether Christopher was sexually assaulted.

Under Maryland law, "good behavior" credits Spencer earned during previous incarcerations applied to a sentence he was serving for assaulting a Frederick woman. Spencer had served just 3 and 1/2 years of a 25-year sentence with all but 10 years suspended for that crime when the state released him Nov. 14.

But he had compiled a history of battery, assault and sex-offense charges that stretched from 1977 to 1996, when his last charge of sexually molesting a child was dropped for reasons that still are lost in state records. His record includes a conviction for sexual assault of a child in 1981 that kept him jailed until 1994.

State officials did not place Spencer in a treatment program upon his release.

Among proposals Mrs. Hecht hopes will become law is one that would place violent sexual offenders in the custody of the state health department likely in a treatment facility or mental hospital until the person is deemed safe for release.

Her idea is based on a Kansas law enacted in 1994 that at least 12 other states have enacted since.

In Maryland, the proposal has been opposed by some groups concerned it could violate convicts' civil liberties and by mental health-interest groups worried that it would drain limited resources from other programs, said Sen. Norman Stone, Baltimore County Democrat, who will sponsor the bill again in the Senate.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Kansas law by a 5-4 decision in 1997 after the Kansas Supreme Court struck it down on due-process grounds.

But some mental health experts argue that studies show treatment seldom rehabilitates violent sexual offenders, and that committing them to mental hospitals results in a de facto life sentence.

Past attempts to advance that proposal as well as other bills that would subject child abusers to tougher penalties and make them ineligible for some sentence reductions have been stopped in the legislature, usually by committees without going to a floor vote.

But the backing of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has oversight for criminal justice and public safety policy, could make a critical difference in whether the bills become law this time.

Mr. Glendening is willing to work with Mrs. Hecht on coming up with a solution, said his spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie.

"This is an extremely important issue for communities… . It raises a lot of difficult questions," said Mrs. Townsend's director of policy and planning, Michael A. Sarbanes.

Mr. Sarbanes said Public Safety Secretary Stuart Simms who is working to revamp a troubled corrections system has recommended that a task force look at the issue.

Mrs. Hecht is proposing that such a panel take a comprehensive look at the issue.

But Prince George's County Democrat Leo Green, vice chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, hopes Maryland doesn't have to wait for a year and a half the minimum time required to get and enact task force recommendations.

"It's not just our legal obligation, it's our moral one," Mr. Green said.

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